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Pedestrians wearing masks stand under a surveillance camera as they wait to cross a road after the extended Lunar New Year holiday caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak, in Beijing's central business district, China on Feb. 10, 2020.

STRINGER/Reuters

Chinese authorities and high-tech companies have begun to marshal the country’s surveillance apparatus to combat the spread of the virus that has killed more than 1,300 people and brought the economy to a standstill.

Facial-recognition systems with thermal-imaging capabilities are identifying and tracking people with fevers. Cameras and microphones outside the homes of people in quarantine are sounding the alarm if they detect unusual sounds or the movement of a human form. Apps are collecting personal information to monitor subway, bus and taxi passengers. Powerful data-analysis systems are sifting through peoples’ movements on planes, trains and buses to warn if they have been close to someone with the virus.

China has already developed the world’s most sophisticated systems to monitor and control its population. Those tools are being used, and augmented, in the effort to lock down the virus now officially known as COVID-19.

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The number of deaths in Hubei, the epicentre of the virus, rose sharply according to figures released by China on Thursday morning. The rise in toll more than doubled the prior provincial daily record of 103 set on Monday, while the number of new cases soared by 14,840, also a daily record.

“If any country can successfully contain this infection, it will be China,” said Benjamin Cowling, an epidemiologist at Hong Kong University.

Critics say the intersection of viral epidemic and technology has provided an opening to expand a surveillance state already used to repress civil liberties.

But Beijing’s ability to focus technological and political power against a health threat has also underscored the Communist Party’s ability to tout the advantages of the Chinese system of governance.

Take the “close-contact detector“ service developed by China Electronics Technology Group Corp., or CETC, a state-owned defence contractor.

The online system unveiled by CETC instructs users to submit their phone numbers, names and national identification numbers. It then reports whether they have been close to someone who has either been confirmed as a case or suspected of infection, either by sharing a bus or being seated within three rows on a plane or train. The company has said it hopes the system will eventually allow it to notify authorities if someone has had close contact with a virus carrier in a shopping mall or supermarket, an indication of the granular tracking used by the Chinese state.

CETC has already built systems to monitor the largely Muslim Uyghur population in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, where authorities have experimented with “predictive policing” powered by big data.

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Over the past few weeks, China has relied more heavily on bureaucratic control than technology to battle the virus. Authorities have erected checkpoints to screen travellers, shut down transportation services, chained people into apartments to ensure they don’t break quarantine and hung red banners, a long-standing propaganda tool, with threatening messages. “To visit is to kill one other. Having a party is no different from suicide,” one said. “Wearing a mask is better than being on a ventilator,” another read.

As the virus has continued its spread, however, political leaders and technology companies have sought new methods.

Tencent, the maker of the ubiquitous WeChat messaging app, has created a mapping tool that shows the location of confirmed cases.

In Beijing’s Haidian District, authorities have installed high-definition infrared cameras to monitor the doors of people under quarantine. The cameras, equipped with “human shape detection” as well as a speaker to transmit commands, can trigger an alarm if a person leaves their home or if they detect “abnormal sounds,” local media reported.

At new hospitals built in less than two weeks in Wuhan – the city at the heart of the viral outbreak – infrared imaging systems connected to facial-recognition technology are monitoring those inside. Similar systems have been developed by AI giant SenseTime for use in subways, schools, office buildings and other crowded areas. Drones have also been used to spray disinfectant and broadcast warnings to people without masks.

Other companies, including e-commerce platform Meituan-Dianping, have built tools already being used to track people on public transportation through real-name registration, effectively stripping anonymity from subway and bus travel.

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Ride-hailing service Dida Chuxing has launched a similar system in Xi’an. It’s a useful way ”to control and trace the epidemic,” spokeswoman Yu Yang said. Dida will “strictly protect personal privacy according to law,” she said. According to Chinese law, such information must be stored for at least two years.

Critics warn about escalating population control under the guise of a health response. Such measures can “numb people to increasingly intrusive surveillance measures further down the road,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch. A further risk is “mission creep.”

“Once you’ve got a tool, you start using it in many different ways,” she said. “Before you know it, you’ll need to ‘real name register’ for eating, drinking, ordering a book, travelling – making it even easier for the authorities and companies wishing to track you.”

In China, however, scholars argue that fighting the virus is the top priority.

“Privacy should not raise major concerns, because the right to survive, at present, must outrank human rights,” said Wu Fei, director of the AI lab at Zhejiang University.

The spread of COVID-19, he said, has exposed a “major weakness” in the country’s ability to detect and manage infectious disease. China collects vast amounts of data, but has struggled to integrate it in a meaningful way.

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In an online article, Wei Lijian, a big-data scholar at Sun Yat-sen University, proposed a system that could sift through data from WeChat; cellular systems; rail, air and taxi travel records; online mapping services; and ride-hailing service providers “to develop a real-time monitoring system.” By developing a comprehensive picture of who was where at what time, such a tool could be used to identify people at risk and prompt authorities to place them in isolation. It could also, Prof. Wei wrote, provide clearance certificates to those not at risk.

There is an urgency to such tasks, said Prof. Wu, who also recommended linking medical records to travel data.

”If we just abandon this after things are over, we might pay for it when a more serious disaster hits in the future.”

With reporting by Alexandra Li

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