‘The Chinese government is using the massive amount of data it has collected to categorize people according to their likelihood of infection by the new coronavirus. But some people say they have been incorrectly tagged and forced into quarantine.
On Valentine’s Day, a 36-year-old lawyer in eastern China discovered he had been coded “red.”
The lawyer, Matt Ma, was effectively put in chains. The color, displayed in a payment app on his smartphone, indicated that he needed to be quarantined at home even though he was not sick.
Without a green light from the system, he could not travel from his home village to the eastern city of Hangzhou, or make it past the checkpoints that have sprung up across the city as a measure to contain the new coronavirus.
Ma is one of the millions of people whose movements are being choreographed by the government through software that feeds on troves of data and spits out orders that effectively dictate whether they must stay in or can go to work.
Their experience represents a slice of China’s desperate attempt to stop a devastating contagion using a mixed bag of cutting-edge technologies and old-fashioned surveillance. It was also a rare real-world test of the use of technology at a large scale to halt the spread of communicable diseases.
“This kind of massive use of technology is unprecedented,” said Christos Lynteris, a medical anthropologist at the University of St Andrews who has studied epidemics in China.
But Hangzhou’s experiment has also revealed the pitfalls of applying opaque formulas on a large population.
In the city’s case, there are reports of people being marked incorrectly, falling victim to an algorithm that is, by the government’s own admission, not perfect.’