07-07-2022 | By Robin Mitchell
A new report from the Financial Times reveals how Chinese authorities are using COVID health apps and mass surveillance to control their population. What exactly has been reported in China, why are such systems highly dangerous, and how much responsibility do engineers bear?
In a recent article from the Financial Times, numerous reports are breaking across China of citizens complaining about the manipulation of COVID health apps that prevent them from partaking in everyday activities. Protesters of government action have found their health app codes being changed and forcing them to stay at home, alarms beeping from unsuspecting phones are seeing many shunned, and the ability to track personal data and prevent the use of everyday services is starting to destroy lives. But how is any of this possible, and where did it start?
For the last decade, the "Supreme Leader" of China, Xi Jinping, has been shifting towards authoritarian rule with the introduction of lifetime appointments, overreaching power of government into daily life, and the integration of communist party members into all major Chinese businesses. Mass surveillance across China has allowed the government to monitor all citizens at all times, and this data is now being powered by AI to create social credit scores for citizens that can restrict access to transportation and other essential services.
During the COVID pandemic of 20202, where other countries saw struggle and conflict, China saw an opportunity: integrate surveillance at the user level. The introduction of a zero COVID policy required businesses to install QR codes scanned using digital health apps, which record all kinds of personal information, including time, date, name, age, location, and symptoms. Along with other proximity technologies, the app deploys contact tracing to identify those who may be infected.
For anyone who understands the Chinese government, such health apps will undoubtedly be abused in every conceivable measure and abused they were. One such example is how thousands of people were given "red codes" (i.e., stay-at-home orders) to prevent them from protesting against their local bank that was at risk of collapsing. Another example was how one user went to purchase cough medicine from a pharmacy (that requires ID and QR scanner) and then proceeded to find their phone started beeping, warning others to keep away.
Thus, what should have been an app to protect people has instead turned into a tool for the government to control its population.
The danger of public health apps, systems that are in place for the "common good", and social credit scores all come down to one point, personal freedom. It is very easy to take for granted the individual freedoms that we have every day, whether it is going to the mall, walking in the park, visiting relatives across the country, or planning trips abroad.
When we create advanced AIs that can identify people in a crowd, camera technologies that can be mounted into the smallest spaces, and methods of contact tracing that can be integrated entirely into software, we often believe that all these advancements will help improve life. However, we rarely make something and try to think about how it could be abused and whether the technology is even ethical to implement.
This was clearly the case when members of parliament in the UK were seriously in favour of extreme COVID measures, including the mandatory use of tracking apps. Another continuing case of data abuse is Clearview AI, whose gigantic database of citizen profiles with included pictures is being used by law enforcement to find criminals despite the vast majority of those in the database being innocent. Facebook has also demonstrated unethical practices with the creation of "Shadow Profiles", whereby non-Facebook users automatically have profiles to track and collect their data as they browse the web.
Fundamentally, humans are kind at heart but devious in nature and will do all kinds of things in secrete. The ability of large tech companies and governments to be secretive about their practices makes it trivial to abuse citizens' personal freedoms. The combination of a health-tracking app with a social credit score system quickly allows for an entity to restrict movement, the use of government-controlled digital currencies allows for that same entity to limit what can be bought, and the ability to change the health code of an individual can ostracise those that have "wrong thought" or do not conform.
There has never been a time in human history where engineers have had to take ethics into consideration on an almost daily basis. The creation of steam trains, bridges, and ships all had their own challenges but rarely introduced concerns of ethics. But the development of AI capable of making decisions for us, imaging systems that can track individuals, and the ability to store personal data en masse raises serious concerns for society and the role that engineers play. This leads us to the question of whether engineers are responsible for this?
It all depends on whether engineers are tools (like a screwdriver or hammer) or free-thinking independent entities with awareness. Of course, engineers are not objects and do indeed have freedom of thought, but a large number of engineers and the need for employment do suggest qualities of objects and tools. Simply put, an engineer could refuse to work on a project that could be deemed as being unethical, but then in all likelihood, another engineer will fill the post. Furthermore, the ethics of a project may not be entirely apparent at the engineering level, and it is only when that project is used by higher forces that its unethical nature becomes apparent.
Overall, engineers should become more aware of ethical concerns that may surround their projects, but generally speaking, it is not the engineer that is at fault but the one who controls the project.