How WeChat’s Health Tracking App Feeds Into China’s Authoritarian Surveillance

August 25, 2020 Updated: September 2, 2020

Since the peak of China’s CCP virus pandemic in February, a three-color health code has ruled the lives of roughly 1 billion Chinese people, assessing whether they can move around freely or must stay in quarantine.

Enabled by the Chinese regime’s ubiquitous use of big data and overzealous attempts to stop COVID-19 spread, the mini-app—embedded within the super-app WeChat that citizens use for nearly all aspects of daily life, from paying for food to booking doctor’s appointments—rates each individual’s health with a green, yellow, and red code. Authorities scan the barcode on people’s phones to check if an individual is virus-free, has had contact with virus patients, is COVID-19 positive, or exhibits symptoms of the virus.

While authorities haven’t explicitly mandated the usage of the app, the barcode must be scanned when boarding a bus or subway, checking into a hotel, entering a supermarket, and entering or leaving their residential district.

The collection and handling of sensitive personal data by WeChat have unsettled some cybersecurity experts, who worry that such information may apply to areas far beyond health and feed into the state’s surveillance machine.

Information remains limited about how people’s data is stored, but public reports and leaked documents suggest that WeChat is working closely with Chinese police and sharing the data without users’ knowledge.

Developed and owned by Shenzhen-based tech giant Tencent, the app has recently drawn U.S. scrutiny over its security and privacy vulnerabilities, which officials say could be exploited by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). President Donald Trump issued an executive order in early August that bans U.S. transactions related to WeChat, citing national security grounds.

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A policeman keeps watch as people wait in line to undergo COVID-19 swab tests at a testing station in Beijing on June 28, 2020. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

Police Access

Internal and public records both show that police authorities have access to the health code’s data.

The Epoch Times obtained an internal announcement from Xiong’an New Area, a state-backed megacity project in Hebei Province, that noted that the local police bureau would be “in charge of big data analysis, data mining, and in-depth application” of the health code.

In Tianjin city, app users’ personal information is cross-checked with a number of governmental departments, including the police, telecom providers, railroad authorities, and the Political and Legal Affairs Commission—the party organization that oversees police, courts, prisons, and other law enforcement authorities—according to a government notice dated in May. Details about “key personnel”—meaning those who have a red code on the app—are to be sent to local outbreak control officials and the city’s police bureau through a “centralized information-sharing platform.”

Such practices, in the context of a long list of the regime’s extensive high-tech monitoring, leaves the possibility that Beijing could weaponize the platform to further oppression both in China and abroad, said Casey Fleming, CEO of intelligence and strategy firm BlackOps Partners.

“It cannot be considered normal inside China, since the CCP controls everything in the country,” he told The Epoch Times, adding that, with “the CCP literally in full control, there are no checks and balances to prevent extreme abuse and coercion.”

The Epoch Times did not immediately hear back from Tencent about WeChat’s privacy concerns.

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Signs accepting WeChat Pay and AliPay are displayed at a shop in Singapore on May 22, 2018. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

All-Encompassing

While virus fears appear to have receded in China, the health code app appears poised to stay—and play a greater role in citizens’ lives.

Hangzhou, capital of eastern Zhejiang Province, has integrated the app with residents’ digital social security cards and driver’s licenses, and had raised the possibility of introducing a gradient-colored health code that scores people by lifestyle habits, such as smoking and drinking. The government later scrapped the plan due to heavy backlash.

Deqing county, also in Zhejiang, has linked the health code to residents’ identification cards since mid-July.

Shenzhen officials have discussed plans, but divulged little detail, about converting the health code into a “citizen code” that identifies each individual on online platforms.

The health code should be completely upgraded to fully utilize its digital value, according to an article by Chinese state media Xinhua Daily, which asserted that police departments should be tasked with “creating, issuing, and managing the code” and combining it with the national ID card system.

“It’s further intrusion and control into citizen’s private lives. There is not much that can be done in a totalitarian country, but this deeper intrusion would be rejected in free societies,” said Fleming.

Currently, those who wish to travel to China are also required to use the app. Travelers who come from, or pass through 78 countries, including the U.K., New Zealand, South Korea, and Singapore, are required to present a virus-negative test result via the WeChat mini app before boarding a China-bound flight.

Some local governments have also integrated the app with the social credit system, an overarching national reputation-ranking mechanism, to pressure citizens into following quarantine rules. Pilot programs exist in Heilongjiang Province of China’s northeast, southern island of Hainan, and central Hubei Province.

Aside from possible criminal prosecution for violating rules, the infractions could be recorded in one’s personal files, which will “follow you for your entire life” and have a “significant impact” on one’s future life and work, including mortgages, banking, and other finances, read a Heilongjiang government notice.

Past Concerns

WeChat, the most popular messaging app in China, has come under heavy criticism in the United States and elsewhere for its overt compliance with Chinese censorship. The app blocks users’ access to content published by Chinese-language outlets critical of the CCP, including the Chinese edition of The Epoch Times, NTD, Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia—even if the users are located in the United States.

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The messenger app WeChat is seen next to its logo in this illustration picture taken on Aug. 7, 2020. (Florence Lo/Reuters)

Digital watchdog Citizen Lab in 2016 found that accounts first registered with Chinese phone numbers continue to face censorship, whether or not they reside in China or later change to an international number. Earlier this year, it also found WeChat to be monitoring its overseas users to improve algorithms for surveilling mainland users.

“They [Chinese-Americans] might live in a free society, but they rely on sources controlled by the CCP on WeChat to get their information,” Chen Chuangchuang, a U.S.-based Chinese rights activist, recently told The Epoch Times, adding that a number of his outspoken pro-democracy friends’ WeChat accounts were blocked.

Follow Eva on Twitter: @EvaSailEast