Chinese AI and Big Data in the fight against COVID-19
China harnessed its massive state surveillance system to successfully curb the spread of the virus. The Chinese experience offers lessons – and cautions – to other countries debating the technologies they wish to employ in the long struggle with the pandemic
A facial-recognition system during a digital conference in Fuzhou, China, in 2018 | Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images
On May 11, 2020, a couple from the Chinese city of Wuhan traveled to Shanghai by high-speed rail. At 23:43, May 19, the wife tested positive for COVID-19. The result was reported to the National Infectious Disease Network Reporting System within seven minutes and by 14:17 on May 20, a detailed report of the couple’s travel route, including the metro lines they had taken and the hotel they had checked in to was posted on “Weibo,” the largest social media platform in China. On the same day, the wife began treatment and several of the couple’s close contacts were placed in quarantine. In less than 24 hours the Shanghai local government was able to test and confirm a COVID-19 case and quarantine additional suspected cases.
One of the most effective elements in China’s efforts to track, contain and manage the spread of the epidemic is its harnessing of the sweeping surveillance infrastructure it has developed in recent years. Unique to the Chinese experience was the scale in which big data analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies were used, significantly reducing time spent locating high-risk individuals and implementing quarantine procedures.
COVID-19’s extremely efficient transmissibility, particularly through pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers, poses difficult challenges for reopening economies and safe international travel. Experts fear these steps will intensify resurgences, or ‘second waves’ of infections, ultimately leading to further lockdowns. AI technologies, used to analyze colossal amounts of personal data to trace the spread of infections, are arguably one of the most promising tools to combat the spread of the virus; today, the country leading the efforts to utilize AI in curbing COVID-19 is China.
This article will survey how China built its mass surveillance system, and how it was adapted to manage the COVID-19 crisis. Additionally, it will explore how Beijing plans to use the experience it acquired in recent months to further develop its AI and big data capabilities, as well as its national surveillance system.
China’s foray into Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence technology can roughly be divided into two main types. 'Narrow AI', built to optimize specific tasks and provide societal benefits, is already present in almost every facet of our daily lives. Narrow AI has been applied to a range of societal needs, from social media to loan financing and from Google searches to self-driving cars. Facebook, for example, collects user activity to build large databases; AI algorithms are then used to analyze user activity and learn preferences for advertising purposes. Conversely, 'General AI' refers to a sophisticated system designed to think and reason much like a human mind. While theoretically possible, reaching this level of sophistication is still many years in the future.
For the past several decades, the United States' slew of tech giants, such as Apple and Alphabet's Google, have been at the forefront of developing innovative AI technologies. China is uniquely positioned to capitalize on Western innovative prowess since it has already collected (and regularly collects) a colossal amount of data from and on its 1.4 billion citizens, which are “fed” to its AI algorithms and dramatically improves their accuracy.
The "Skynet" system, the largest surveillance system in the world, relies on over 200 cameras installed throughout China
In 2015, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and the State Council of the PRC, China’s chief administrative authority, launched 'Made in China 2025' – a development plan designed to completely restructure and boost China’s AI technology proficiency. With Chinese venture-capital investors already pouring large sums of money into local AI startups, the goal is to position China at the helm of global AI innovation by 2030.
While this comprehensive plan will build a formidable infrastructure in terms of AI development, the vast amount of data collected over the past several years from Chinese citizens is what gives China an edge over the United States. At the heart of these data collection efforts is a crucial part of the 2025 plan – “Skynet,” the largest surveillance system in the world. Promoted as a campaign to boost public trust and aid law enforcement efforts, “Skynet” analyzes data from over 200 million surveillance cameras, which were installed by 2017 in almost every public facility in the country. These cameras can accurately identify personal details, such as vehicle types and a driver's clothing, gender, and even age.
In tandem with “Skynet,” for almost a decade now, Beijing has required its citizens to comply with its “Real Name” system and use government-issued IDs to participate in everyday activities such as buying SIM cards, registering social media accounts, and using public transportation and healthcare services. Between the existing “Real Name” system and the vast array of surveillance cameras, public officials are capable of instantly identifying and locating each of China’s 1.4 billion citizens.
Lastly, and most notably, the two exceptionally powerful tools of data collection and surveillance in the service of the Chinese government are the WeChat and Alipay mobile apps. WeChat, an app combining social media, payment, utilities and information services, is the most widely used mobile app in China and reports over one billion monthly users. Alipay is the most popular mobile payment app in China, touting over 900 million users.
While other Asian countries have successfully used surveillance technologies to combat the pandemic, China was especially primed to activate its vast pre-existing AI infrastructure to effectively surveil its population, track confirmed and potential carriers, order them into quarantine, and ultimately disrupt the virus’ chains of infection. Considering that China was ground zero for the outbreak and has a population of over a billion, instituting strict lockdown measures in tandem with swift and extensive surveillance measures were key in China's ability to “flatten the curve.”
On January 23, following the identification of Wuhan as the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, provincial authorities moved to impose a strict curfew. However, it quickly emerged that more than five million people had left the city before the province-wide shutdown was announced, largely due to the annual Spring Festival. Millions of travelers were now potential carriers of COVID-19, and needed to be urgently and effectively monitored. Although this event ultimately triggered a nationwide – and later global – epidemic, it would have been impossible to track these five million travelers and conduct adequate contact tracing without the use of AI surveillance systems and big data analytics.
As the virus continued to spread, local governments, three state-owned mobile network operators, and several technology companies coordinated in building capabilities dedicated to tracking COVID-19. Important information generated from the data was then made available to China's WeChat and Alipay users. Each app added a COVID-19 portal where users could view travel routes used by confirmed carriers and access important hospitalization data. Mobile network operators informed citizens if they had taken the same transit as a confirmed COVID-19 carrier, while CCTV footage and AI-powered facial recognition technology were also widely utilized to bolster contact tracing efforts.
Alipay QR code in Shanghai 
In cooperation with TenCent and Ant Financial – WeChat and Alipay’s parent companies, respectively – the Chinese government tapped into the apps' wide user base and adapted them to serve as contact tracing tools to curb the spread of COVID-19. For instance, a micro-app was added to WeChat allowing users to search confirmed carriers’ routes by date or public transportation route numbers (see screenshot of the micro-app below):
Users can search for the methods of transportation taken by a confirmed COVID-19 infected individual by date, route number and city. The lower half shows a list of all transportation means
A search result of March 27, 2020. It shows a carrier was on the bus #H1B193 from the Bus Terminal station to the #1 JingMen Hospital station, sitting in the third row from the bottom on the left. It also shows the time the passenger got on and off the bus, and the source of the information
At the same time, people deemed as potentially infected according to WeChat and Alipay location data are notified that they are required to quarantine. Violating quarantine orders leads to intervention by government officials and police departments, who use big data collected from the apps and facial recognition cameras to locate those in violation.
Recent app updates also showcase a QR code to be used as a health identification system for each user. Following China’s lifting of the lockdown in April, health QR code scans are now required to enter public areas such as shopping malls, bus stations and schools, as well as for traveling between cities.
WeChat and Alipay have undoubtedly proven instrumental in facilitating China’s ability to carefully monitor the virus’ spread throughout the crisis and afterwards, as restrictions were cautiously lifted.
As the situation stabilized and residents began returning from abroad, concerns grew over a second wave of infections. Chinese authorities responded by introducing several technological solutions for tracking and monitoring returnees.
Upon entry, all international passengers pass through a checkpoint equipped with thermal cameras and facial recognition systems. If a passenger’s temperature is recorded as elevated, they are taken to a quarantined room and administered a COVID-19 test. If the result is positive, airport personnel notify all passengers on the plane via text message of virus exposure risk. These passengers are then quarantined at their homes or assigned hotels, and daily body temperature checks are conducted by local government officials. Here, too, mobile carriers and smartphone apps help track the location of travelers to help enforce quarantine orders.
Without establishing an adequate privacy framework, using AI-based surveillance technologies potentially allows corporations and government agencies to store and use citizens’ personal data at will. Moreover, surveillance technologies give governments powers that can be used to restrict and infringe on citizens’ civil liberties without due process, should those powers go unchecked.
Although the power of the Chinese Communist Party is seemingly limitless, there have been some attempts at providing adequate legislation concerning privacy and personal data protections. On February 9, the Chinese Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission issued the “Notice of Effectively Protecting Personal Information and Using Big Data to Support Joint Prevention and Control,” which addresses the privacy protection concerns arising from the use of personal data in the fight against COVID-19. The short memorandum denotes which government departments and public institutions can collect and use personal data and under what circumstances. According to the notice, State-authorized institutions should only access personal data of confirmed cases, suspected cases and people who have been in proximity to confirmed cases. The notice also mentions that any organization or individual can report behaviors of illegal collection, usage, and release of personal data to cybersecurity and police departments.
However, both the Chinese government and the public are clearly less concerned about privacy violations when it comes to dealing with major health crises. For Chinese citizens faced with the COVID-19 emergency, steps that constituted a violation of privacy were not just generally accepted but also seen as positive, as they helped the public protect itself and kept it informed.
Moreover, WeChat and Alipay are only two among several applications offering “health code” services to help prevent and control disease transmission in China. Beijing Youth Daily, a Chinese state-owned news media, suggests that the government has been able to successfully establish a comprehensive cross-province mutual recognition mechanism for "health code" data and now seeks to implement a "one code pass" system, in the long term. The "one code pass" will consolidate the numerous health code systems into one platform that will share data and make it more convenient for cross-regional movement.
Beijing Youth Daily also implies that the "one code pass" app will become the new form of identification and maintain the surveillance status quo created under the circumstances of the pandemic. This type of identification system provides the Chinese authorities access to even greater volumes of data, well beyond what is required to manage the COVID-19 crisis. It also serves them in other areas of development such as smart cities, in line with the 'Made in China 2025' plan.
China’s experience in combating COVID-19 has shown one way in which advanced technologies can quickly be adapted to manage extreme situations which require quick processing and analysis of vast volumes of real-time data. Following the coronavirus outbreak, many countries around the world have introduced different degrees of technological monitoring and surveillance measures to quickly identify, monitor and track new transmissions.
Certainly, the Chinese model cannot be replicated in Western countries, as it relies on a state's authority and ability to harvest private data, practices deemed inadmissible in many democracies. Nevertheless, China’s ability to quickly adapt its existing AI tools and big data analytics for COVID-19 specific surveillance has not been overlooked by Western countries, as it was key in Beijing's pandemic response plan.
China’s decision to standardize its unprecedented, all-encompassing COVID-19 surveillance system, in addition to existing surveillance measures, is not surprising. However, it raises concerns that similar steps will be taken in other countries using surveillance measures to combat COVID-19. As the virus becomes an ongoing part of life, there are serious concerns that such extreme surveillance measures, originally devised to deal effectively with a state of emergency, are now becoming a regular feature in many countries.
As Israel gradually eases restrictions, it would do well to learn from the experience of others. Israeli officials will need to strike the right balance between achieving public safety through mass population surveillance, powered by AI and big data - and preserving personal freedoms and civil liberties fundamental to its way of life.
Maya Shabi is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy’s Asia Policy Program. She holds a master's degree in Public Policy from Tel Aviv University.
Shuyi Zhang is a 2020 Asia Leadership Program fellow at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy. She holds a master's degree in Advocacy in the Global Environment from George Washington University.
Harry (Zhidao) Wang is a Fellow at the the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy’s Asia Policy Program. He holds master’s degrees in Political Management from George Washington University and Conflict Resolution from Tel Aviv University.
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