Coronavirus brings China state surveillance out of the shadows


When the Hangzhou man returned home from a business trip, local police made contact. They tracked his car by license plate in nearby Wenzhou, which had a spate of coronavirus cases despite being far from the epicentre of the outbreak. Stay indoors for two weeks, they requested.

After 12 days he was bored and went out early. This time, not only did the police contact him, so did his boss. He was spotted near Hangzhou’s West Lake by a camera with facial recognition technology and authorities alerted his company as a warning.

“I was shocked by the ability and efficiency of the mass surveillance network. They can basically trace movements with AI technology and big data at any time and any place,” said the man, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions.

Chinese have long been aware they are tracked by the world’s most sophisticated system of electronic surveillance. The coronavirus emergency brought some technology out of the shadows, providing authorities with justification for sweeping high tech social control.

Artificial intelligence and security camera companies boast their systems scan streets for people with even low-grade fevers, recognise faces even if they are wearing masks and report them.

If a coronavirus patient boards a train, the railway’s “real name” system can provide a list of people nearby.

Mobile phone apps can tell users if they have been on a flight or a train with a known coronavirus carrier. Maps show locations of buildings where infected patients live.

There has been anonymous grumbling on social media but, for now Chinese seem to accept the extra intrusion, or even embrace it, as a means to combat the health emergency.

“In the circumstances, individuals are likely to consider this reasonable even if they are not specifically informed about it,” said Carolyn Bigg, partner at law firm DLA Piper in Hong Kong.


Telecoms companies have quietly tracked movement of their users. China Mobile promoted this as a service, sending text messages to Beijing residents telling them they can check where they have been over the past 30 days. It did not explain why users might need this, but it could be useful if questioned by authorities or employers about travel.

“In the era of big data and internet, the flow of each person can be clearly seen. We are now different from the SARS time,” epidemiologist Li Lanjuan said in an interview with China’s state broadcaster CCTV last week, comparing the outbreak to a virus that killed 800 people in 2003.

“With new technologies, we should make full use to find the source of infection and contain it.”

The industry ministry sent a notice to China’s AI companies and research institutes calling for help fight the outbreak. Companies responded with a flurry of announcements touting the capabilities of their technology.

Facial recognition firm Megvii said it developed a new way to spot and identify people with fevers, with support from the industry and science ministries. Its new “AI temperature measurement system”, which detects temperature with thermal cameras and uses body and facial data to identify individuals, is being tested in a Beijing district.

SenseTime, another leading AI firm, built a similar system for use at building entrances, which can identify people wearing masks, overcoming a weakness of earlier technology. Surveillance camera firm Zhejiang Dahua can detect fevers with infrared cameras to within 0.3ºC.

In an interview with state news agency Xinhua, Zhu Jiansheng of the China Academy of Railway Sciences explained technology can help authorities find people who might be exposed to a confirmed or suspected coronavirus case on a train.

“We will retrieve relevant information about the passenger, including train number, carriage number and information on passengers close to the person, such as people sitting three rows of seats before and behind the person,” he said.

“We will extract the information and provide it to epidemic prevention departments.”