Covid-19 has taken the world by storm. With Covid-19 being classified as a pandemic, recent predictions claim that within the coming year, 40-70% of people around the world will be affected with Covid-19 (including mild disease or an asymptomatic form). In a sense, China being the epicenter of the outbreak has reluctantly taken the world through a learning curve on how technology intersects with policy in public health emergencies.
As the number of cases rose in China, the ruling party’s response has been interesting. Since early February, China has been encouraging citizens to return to work. But while the Government does that, it has also begun efforts to regulate people’s movement through smartphones. Currently, the system is present in 200 cities and is being rolled out nationwide. Users fill in a form on the Alipay app with their personal details and are presented with a QR code, which can be green, yellow or red. If your code is green, you are free to move about unrestricted. A yellow code means staying at home for a week, whereas a red means a two-week quarantine.
On the surface, it makes sense. People who are predicted to be at risk should take precautions to ensure they don’t spread the virus. Software is a great medium to help achieve that. In a pandemic of this scale and seriousness, workers in public places like metro stations, subways, and residential societies should have the power to check who may be a contagion risk.
But once you take a closer look, it becomes evident that tech does not always mirror society. People do not always fall neatly into green, yellow, and red signals. Data that classifies people may be riddled with biases. Algorithms may come to unjustified and false conclusions that put people at risk. Data shared with law enforcement agencies infringe on people’s privacy. All of this is evident now, making China an excellent case study to learn from.
The New York Times has done exceptional reporting on this. In a particular case, Leon Lei, 29, was allotted a green code on Alipay before leaving his hometown, Anqing, to return to work in Hangzhou. A day before he departed, his code turned red, seemingly for no apparent reason. It is hard to say why the code changed and what parameters the algorithm used to detect possibility of people being at risk. A working theory could be that Leon’s hometown, while itself not being a hotbed for the virus, borders Hubei Province — the center of the outbreak. As a result, the software decided to change its color. But it is hard to know for sure.
Had location been the deciding factor in the code changing its color, then it is safe to assume that an increasing number of people in Anqing would get red codes, even if they are not at risk. This would make it harder for them to move to safer areas. Vanessa Wong faced this situation when she had no symptoms and her code suddenly turned red. Her employer and housing complex needed green codes for entry, leaving her stranded in Hubei. In addition, personal data shared by the users send location and an identifier to the police.
This brings us to a larger question. What is a responsible way to use tech in such emergencies? State capacity is limited and technology is a handy tool that allows governments to bridge gaps. But as China teaches us, such solutions have very significant limitations. They do not mirror society accurately, can be biased, infringe on privacy and have the potential to do considerable harm.
This is why monitoring apps, such as Alipay need to be more transparent. It is better to disclose what data is being collected and how much weightage each parameter will be given. Citizen’s would then have the basic know-how of why their codes turned green and what they can do to be safer. It is because there is little to no transparency in the Alipay process, forcing uninfected citizens to be stranded and putting them at risk.
People often tend to claim that technology is just a tool. It is value-neutral and does not defer between groups. It seems like a benign sentence but is dangerously misleading. When it comes to outcomes, history and China today teach us that tech ends up choosing winners and losers, unintentionally so. Covid-19 is a crisis that should not be wasted in teaching us that.
This article was first published in Deccan Chronicle. Views are personal.