Weekend Roundup: Tracking the Coronavirus Shows Health Will Trump Privacy

China is only treading the path all will follow.

Nathan Gardels

Residents scan a QR code at the entrance of a supermarket in Zhengzhou, central China’s Henan province, on February 19, 2020. Zhengzhou City launched a QR code system which is connected to the health condition registration system operated for residential communities. (Reuters)

The coronavirus certainly will not be the last of the contagious microbes that will emerge in China and emanate to the rest of the world. But just as it has the perfect conditions for future outbreaks — dense urban zones where tens of millions of people interface closely with animals — it also possesses the perfect technological ecosystem to innovate new responses.

“China has an edge in the ability to combine strong, top-down government directive with vibrant grassroots-level innovation,” says Shanghai-based management guru Edward Tse. “Beyond this, China has an abundance of data to train AI-learning algorithms because of its huge population of internet users — more than 700 million. China’s thriving mobile internet ecosystem also provides a test bed for AI researchers to collect and analyze valuable demographics and transactional and behavioral big data and to conduct large-scale experiments at a much higher level than foreign counterparts.” He might add as well the availability of huge amounts of investment capital in both the public and private sectors.

One can easily imagine a viral app for smartphones that can take your temperature and, using a download of virus DNA sequence, identify whether you are infected or not, instantly sharing that information with the health authorities without ever having to enter a facility where you might be exposed to others that are ill.

Smartphone sensors that monitor heart and respiratory health, nutrition and hygiene, or diagnose disease, already exist in many places.

China’s extant social monitoring systems complete the picture of what is possible, as rudimentary apps tracking who is clean or potentially infected with the coronavirus demonstrate. Alibaba’s sister company Ant Financial has developed software that color codes a person’s infectious status in green (clean), yellow (caution, report to health authorities) and red (quarantine) based on responses to a questionnaire about your location, where you have been, who you have seen, if you have a cough, and so on.

According to a report in the New York Times, by the end of February, 50 million people in Zhejiang province had signed up for the codes — almost 90 percent of the population. Tencent, which has 1 billion users through its WeChat service, is also working with the health authorities on a coding app.

To anyone concerned with civil liberties, it is a bit scary that all this tracking information on people’s location and movements is shared with the authorities and could well be used for other reasons of social control. That is certainly an issue within the context of China’s surveillance state. Yet those of us in the West should not be naïve that, when it comes to health issues, even open societies will invite these new surveillance technologies.

“The big battle in this regard in the 21st century will be between privacy and health. And health will win,” “Homo Deus” author Yuval Harari told me in a conversation last year. “Most people will be willing to give up their privacy in exchange for much better health care, based on 24-hour monitoring of what’s happening inside their bodies.”

Well before the coronavirus, he speculated that “very soon people will walk around with biometric sensors on or even inside their bodies and will allow Facebook, the Chinese government or whomever to constantly monitor what’s happening in their bodies. The day the first cancer cell starts to multiply and spread, someone at Google or at the health authority will know and will be able to very easily nip the cancer in the bud. The day a flu epidemic starts, they will immediately know who are carrying it, and they can take very effective, quick and cheap action to prevent it.”

He went on: “The dangers are also enormous. Just think of a place like North Korea. People will be walking around with biometric bracelets. If you see a picture of Kim Jong Un on a wall and your blood pressure elevates, which the algorithm correlates with some emotion like anger, then that is the end of you.”

Social demand is what drives technological innovation. And, after this coronavirus episode, there is no demand greater than for technology that can rapidly detect, diagnose and register infection to stem the spread of disease among populations, in China or elsewhere.

As Harari concluded in our discussion, “With all the genuine objections and worries … what will ram such a future through the wall is health. People will voluntarily give up their privacy.”