Quarantine Monitoring: China Throws Privacy Out the Door

The world continues to reel from COVID-19, as the pandemic rages on. In China, government entities are explicitly stating they are in test, trace and isolate mode. In “COVID-19: Contact Tracing Your Privacy or Your Health,” we noted the role the China Health Application plays in the Chinese effort.

And while western journalists returning to China in March 2020 were subjected to a strict quarantine of 14 days at a government-controlled facility, we did not have a real feel for the level of isolation that individuals resident in China were being required to accept as part of the contact tracing regime.

The China Health Application provided users a QR code, the color of which provided to the individual their current status—green, red or yellow. Those with a seven-day or shorter quarantine received a yellow-colored QR, while those with a 14-day quarantine would receive the red-colored QR code.

It appears that this system, which requires individuals’ cooperation and provision of their personal information and current health status to function, wasn’t enough.

The government, already known for its ubiquitous video surveillance capability, doubled down and began using technology to keep tabs on individuals who had been told by the government to self-isolate or quarantine.

Irish expat Ian Lahiffee told CNN that when he returned to Beijing from a domestic trip to southern China, he was told by the Beijing government he must stay in his residence. Always ready to comply, Lahiffee did just that. When he opened his apartment door the next morning, he was surprised to see a video camera pointed at the door of his apartment.

When Lahiffee finished his period of quarantine, the camera was removed.

Is this happening to only foreigners?

Not by a long shot. In a Weibo posting (since removed by the service) a citizen notes that the government also placed a video camera outside their residence, but also inside. This tactic was documented on 16 February 2020.

Chinese telecom entities are assisting in the quarantine-monitoring efforts. This was evidenced by a Hangzhou Unicom post on Weibo on 10 February that noted the Unicom 5G+WiFi+Camera was a mobile solution being deployed on behalf of the government entities that must monitor home-quarantined individuals. The post showed cameras being installed on railings and walls, and the “monitoring center” where the video is fed.

The Guardian’s Lily Kuo described her in-home quarantine as both absurd and efficient. She had traveled to Wuhan and returned to Beijing and was ordered to self-isolate in her apartment. She received regular phone calls from an assigned minder, Ms. Du, in the morning and afternoon reminding Kuo to send in her temperature readings and file the obligatory self-exam regarding her medical condition.

Kuo found her apartment door had a sensor that would alert her minder if she opened the door to take out the trash or receive a delivery. In addition, the door was tagged with a visual aid, a pink slip of paper with hearts, to let her neighbors know how long Kou’s quarantine should last. Clearly a tip of the hat to the adage, “Many hands make light work”—in this case, many eyes keep on inside and minding the order to isolate.

While the use of technology to assist in managing the trace, identify and isolate functions of combating the COVID-19 pandemic, what works in China may not work elsewhere.

Chinese population, long-inured to their lack of privacy, are not rising in appreciable numbers in protest. In fact, the efforts by China’s governmental entities are viewed predominately as a necessary inconvenience.

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Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former Senior Security Advisor to Cisco and served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit: Senior Online Safety.

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