Giving Up Privacy for Safety: Health QR Codes Used by 1 Billion People in China

Story by Lily Chan and Emily Luk

In February 2021, Tencent announced that health QR codes had more than 1 billion users. The codes had been used more than 24 billion times and had more than 65 billion visits. These large numbers indicate that health QR codes have been in Chinese people’s daily routines in a subtle way. It is difficult to employ COVID-19 contact tracing techniques in many countries. By contrast, the conception, implementation, and popularization of health QR codes seem to be smooth in China.

Currently living in Shenzhen, Kennis was an insurance agent in Hong Kong before the COVID-19. (Photo/ Kennis)

Kennis is a 27-year-old insurance manager in Hong Kong. Hong Kong insurance industry has suffered great loss during the epidemic. Customers cannot come to Hong Kong to sign bills from foreign countries and Mainland China. Therefore, Kennis’s work was suspended. She chose to come to Shenzhen for job opportunities in November last year.

“I have forgotten how many times I filled in the health QR codes information from going through the customs to undergoing a 14-day quarantine,” Kennis recalls. Since the end of the quarantine, Kennis has lived in Shenzhen for nearly half a year. For her, health QR codes gradually become articles of everyday use.

The green code showed up after filling in his personal information.

Take out your mobile phone, open up WeChat to scan the QR code, enter your “name”, “ID number”, “mobile phone number”, “address” and other information, and then tick the box to allow telecom operators to provide the local authority with the information about cities you have been to. “Government institutions, shopping malls, restaurants… Now you may be required to show your health QR codes when you visit almost all public places in China. ” Kennis says.

Without health QR codes, people cannot visit many places smoothly. In the health QR codes system, there are green code, yellow code, and red code. It divides individuals into different categories and determines whether an individual can live a normal life in the city.

The implementation of health QR codes in China has always been controversial. Some media agencies, such as New York Times and BBC, have published articles accusing the Chinese government of using big data technology to carry out large-scale tests and infringe on citizens’ privacy in the name of the epidemic. The fact is that in many countries, the public can hardly accept COVID-19 contact tracing apps owing to their infringement of personal privacy.

“But now we have to fill in a lot of personal information when signing up for a supermarket membership. Why can’t we give the information to the government for epidemic prevention?”

Said Kennis.

Kennis still feels confused about it. “Credit cards, online shopping platforms, and video platforms we use every day are actually monitoring our lives with big data.” In this instance, she thinks it is very contradictory to only refuse to use health QR codes.

Lawyer Cai Haidong from King & Wood Mallesons compares submitting personal information for health QR codes as “providing personal information to government agencies when applying for certificates”. He believes that it is not the only solution that citizens yield rights to public authority for safety in the epidemic. However, this is the current optimal solution.

Living in Shenzhen for six months, Kennis has witnessed how effective “Chinese-style approaches to fighting the epidemic” are, including the health QR codes system. Therefore, she has changed her mind.

In the past, she always believed that all civil rights should be respected. However, due to the severe impact of the epidemic on her work, she begins to think personal rights should make way for the overall interests of society at the appropriate time. “I don’t think it’s a good timing to always emphasize privacy when facing the threat of the epidemic.”

Mr Peng, a manager of an A/C company, used to travel among cities for business for years. Photo/ Lily Chan

Peng, a 46-year-old man who runs an air-conditioning company, has to travel among cities for business. He believes that business operators like him do not face a worse situation because China has implemented a series of tough anti-epidemic measures, including the health QR codes system.

“Personally, I believe in the government. So using health QR codes is nothing to worry about for me.”

Said Peng.

Peng says that as an ordinary person, he cares more about whether he can live and work normally every day, rather than “privacy” which is a relatively abstract concept.

He recalls that when the epidemic situation was the most serious in China, everyone was afraid to leave their homes until the health QR codes system was introduced. “At that time, when people met, they were worried that others might have been infected. However, health QR codes were introduced and they have helped us identify the health condition of others. Everyone is safer and more at ease. ” Peng said.

Peng speaks highly of the success of health QR codes, and he says that “maybe other countries and regions can learn something from it to fight against the epidemic.”

However, Wang Peng, associate professor of the Department of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong, believes that “the Chinese-style approach to fighting the epidemic” is not suitable for most countries. “The success of health QR codes is closely related to China’s unique political and social environment, which enables Chinese people to be very united in carrying out the government’s policies.”

Graduated from the law school of Tsinghua University, Wang Xiaowei is a blogger enjoying 50k subscriptions on Weibo. The figure is a screenshot of his Weibo account.

Wang Xiaowei, a legal blogger who has about 50,000 followers on his MicroBlog, says that the Chinese people have become more and more concerned about personal privacy and data security in recent years. However, on the issue of health QR codes, they are willing to yield personal privacy in exchange for safety. On the one hand, it is out of their trust in the government. On the other hand, it is due to the pursuit of a stable life.

“This is a matter of prioritizing values, and everyone can rank them differently,” he says. “Most Chinese people tend to put safety before privacy. There’s nothing right or wrong about that.”

Wang thinks that it is difficult for the law to make an absolutely correct judgment on this issue because the law is committed to protecting both individual rights and public health safety.

“Some Chinese people may use health QR codes involuntarily because of the general atmosphere. But the fact is that no measure can be perfect. Health QR codes are no exception. ”

Read Part 1: Can ‘LeaveHomeSafe’ really make Hong Kong safe? Mixed concerns from the public might limit its effectiveness

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