China is tightening control over its population. The Chinese news agency Xinhua announced on Saturday February 8 that a new application, called “close contact detector”, is now available in the country. Developed by China Technology Group Corporation (CETC) – an electronics company owned by the Chinese state – it would allow its users to check if they have crossed paths with a person suffering from or suspected of having coronavirus, provides the Xinhua agency, also controlled by Beijing. The application is said to have received support from several government agencies including the National Health Commission and the Ministry of Transport.
So how does it work? China remains stingy with details regarding its technologies. According to Xinhua, you must first scan a QR Code with another application, such as the Chinese social network WeChat, to be able to access the application. Then, the user must fill in several information such as his name and his phone number. If he has been in contact with people suspected of being infected with the virus, he would then be invited to stay at home and contact the health authorities, Xinhua said.
The system therefore claims to detect proximity contacts, either when “a person approaches closely without effective protection while their case is confirmed, suspect or benign“, Details the National Health Commission without specifying by what means it reaches these conclusions. These “close contacts” could therefore include relatives, colleagues, classmates, medical staff … The Chinese agency gives an example: the passengers of an airplane sitting in the same row as an infected person or three rows in front and three behind are then considered to have been in “close contact”.
“The application works thanks to mass monitoring system Chinese, analyzes Matthew Warren, deputy director of the Deakin University Cybersecurity Research and Innovation Center. People are tracked using various devices such as the use of surveillance cameras, drones, searches in phones … Then their movements can be traced“. In addition to face-recognition cameras, body sensors and scanners have also been installed, making it possible to detect the body heat of the population. According to Matthew Warren, all of this technology would allow China to collect a huge mass of data on its citizens.
“I spent time in China and visited some data centers, adds Matthew Warren. They really set up mass surveillance. Thanks to the information collected, they can make profiles, know when a person went to the doctor, for example. Now they watch people’s illness the same way they can watch criminals“. Laurence Devillers, professor of computer science at Sorbonne University and holder of the IA Humaaine chair at the CNRS, abounds:On facial recognition, the Chinese are very strong, they have a very good recognition rate. Everything is controlled, the state can have a single file of all the data that may have been collected“.
An “interesting” technique?
A technique that Laurence Devillers considers to be “invasive“But which could also be”interesting“. “It is important to understand how the virus is transmitted, and perhaps this application could do this.“. An opinion shared by Nicolas Miailhe, co-founder and president of the think tank the future society. “In China, the culture is different, the notion of private life is not the same as ours, he advances. In this context, the health emergency may justify monitoring the population. According to the government, the data are made to circulate and there they can ensure that they do it for the “good cause”“.
However, many unknowns remain. How can you be sure the person is really sick? What did the developers use to develop their application? “There is an absence of transparency on algorithmic methods, recognizes Nicolas Miailhe. In addition, it was developed very quickly, so we can imagine that there may be bugs“. It is therefore difficult to know if the application is reliable, even if the Chinese state is not at the same time trying to control its population.
“We don’t really know how it works, the capabilities of the application are not explained either», Adds Laurence Devillers. Above all, it is essential, she says, to understand the real purpose of the “close contact detector”. “If it’s just for individual use, to spot people around you who might have contracted the virus, then that’s ridiculous. But if it can help understand a little better how the virus is transmitted, then it may be useful“.