Coronavirus: what is the “green code” that allows people in China to freely move (and why it can be controversial)


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After almost three months of blockade, of the city of Wuhan reopened their entrances Wednesday, April 8, for the free transit of people

After nearly three months of blockade, the chinese city of Wuhan -the birthplace of coronavirus-, will allow people to leave freely from this Wednesday the 8th of April.

But before doing so, each inhabitant of the city must overcome a strict control: to corroborate, through your smart phone, that their state of health recorded a “code green”.

What does this mean? In simple words, according with a application called “Health Code” that person is free of the virus and that, consequently, can travel without restrictions.

However, if the person has a code yellow or red, the situation changes: in the first case, it must stay in quarantine for seven days -because it means that he was in contact with someone infected – and, in the second, by two weeks, because of the belief that you can be a carrier of covid-19.

As well, as chinese citizens begin to rebuild their lives, mobile phones seem to become a tracking tool key to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

But, how an application can get all these data? And, what is of concern is the question of privacy of users?

How does it work?

“In the era of big data and the internet, the movements of each person can be clearly seen,” he said Li Lanjuan, a consultant to the National Commission of Health of China, in an interview with the state television of this country.

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Just opened up the entrances, on Wednesday, April 8, many rushed out of Wuhan, the city where he started the outbreak.

“Making full use of these new technologies, we should find and contain the source of infectionadded.

The words of Li could not be more accurate to explain what is behind this new software: identify possible carriers of the coronavirus.

In this way, the application recognizes if a particular user has been in “close contact” with a carrier of the virus. And, having been, probably that person will have a codegreen to a yellow one.

Now, what does it mean a “close contact”?

As have explained to the chinese authorities, they are people who have been near patients with covid-19, who have visited an area “active” virus (such as airplanes, trains or buses with the infected), or who have reported symptoms in the form of registration of the application, among others.

In conversation with BBC World, Joe McFadden, manager of technology of the social network of health HealthUnlocked, explains that the application uses machine learning algorithms to “issue judgments about the rates of infection of its users”.

“By taking various data, make predictions about the risk of infection of various areas”says.

The software, which was developed by the government of Xi Jinpinginstalls through two possible tools: WeChat, the instant messaging application, or Alipay, the online payment platform operated by Alibaba.

After completing some personal data-such as the national identification number, and telephone-the user must answer a health survey rapid (with questions such as if you have had fever in the last few days).

What surveillance system?

Although from now on this “health code” will be key for the citizens of Wuhan are able to get out of the city, it is certain that the application is already being used by thousands of chinese in other cities.

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After weeks of intensive work, the medical staff of the health emergency of the Wuhan takes leave of his colleagues at the airport of the city.

It is the case of Hangzhouwhere the program has practically become the “passport of entry” to restaurants, shops, and other dependencies. Security personnel stops you to potential customers, and these must display your green code. Otherwise, you may not enter.

Despite the fact that many citizens and experts acknowledge the usefulness of this program to address the coronavirus, there are those who claim that the chinese Communist Party is using the health crisis to expand its surveillance system.

“The application helps to control the spread, but should always be balanced with the rights of the people, with their privacy,” says Joe McFadden.

“I think the big concern here is that when certain things are introduced in emergency conditions, then do not return to normal. Then, if we accept this type of monitoring for this reason now, could be the new standard in forward”, she added.

What so infallible is the application?

In addition, through social networks, several chinese users have questioned the way in which the application decides the color of the health code.

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The systems of artificial intelligence are not infallible.

As has been pointed out, it is not clear exactly how the system classifies people and the data they use to do so.

“In this kind of situations, the system algorithms can become very complex in a very short time. So much so, that even the scientists behind the app may be unable to say why an individual gets a code a day and the another day, another”, explains McFadden.

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The picture may be even more complicated if one considers that the system of artificial intelligence is not infallible. So what explains the expert in technology of HealthUnlocked.

“Automatic learning does not mean that always work. It is not foolproof. We can have a lot of problems of inaccuracy, give false-positive results and false-negative,” he says.

“Even if you have a 99% accuracy that remaining 1% in China is that a lot of people who are going to have bad results,” he adds.

But, despite these potential errors, all indicate that at least during the duration of the pandemic, in China the “green code” will continue to be vital for the free transit of its citizens.

And is that, as authorities have said the asian giant, the technology is here to stay and, in situations of health emergencies, you can become a true weapon of containment.

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