China Wants to Use Its Coronavirus App to Track How Much Its Citizens Sleep, Drink, and Smoke

The data would be used to permit or deny entry to public buildings, and control the use of public transport.
china coronavirus surveillance
FeatureChina via AP Images

Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.

A city in China has proposed making a color-coded coronavirus tracking app a permanent fixture for residents, allowing authorities to track how much citizens exercise, sleep, drink, and smoke.

The app would give each resident a color-coded score of between 0 and 100 and would then be used to permit or deny entry to public buildings or allow the use of public transport.


The proposal, made by officials in the eastern China city of Hangzhou late last week, has been met with an unprecedented wave of criticism: Citizens claim it would become part of Beijing’s already-dystopian surveillance system that is used to monitor and track an increasing amount of citizens’ online and offline activities.

Back in February, the Chinese government introduced a mandatory tracking app to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The app, which was developed jointly by Chinese tech giants Tencent and Alibaba, gives each user a green, yellow, or red status depending on where they've traveled or whether they have been in contact with confirmed cases.

The app has been downloaded over a billion times and users’ codes have been scanned over 9 billion times, according to Tencent. The Chinese government claimed it helped stop the spread of coronavirus within China. But an investigation by the New York Times found that health data collected by the app was being shared with local police officials without the users’ explicit permission.

Now, officials in Hangzhou’s Health Commission want to repurpose the app to make it a permanent fixture for the city’s residents.

The updated app, according to screenshots posted online, would include a spectrum of color-coded health status scores which would be calculated by taking into account medical records and physical examinations, as well as lifestyle factors.


These lifestyle factors include exercise, drinking, smoking, and sleep quality — though it’s not clear how the app would collect such information or whether the app would be mandatory.

Regardless, Hangzhou residents were not happy with the proposal.

READ: Here's how China is hunting down coronavirus critics

Once power is unleashed, it’s difficult to retract. Once we give up our rights under special circumstances, it’s hard to get them back,” one Weibo user wrote in a widely circulated post on Monday.

Another post, which received 4,200 likes, said: “There should be a line between personal health and public health. Other people shouldn’t have the right to see personal health reports.”

Chenchen Zhang, an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Queen’s University Belfast, compared the proposal to something from the dystopian science fiction series "Black Mirror," and said the online criticism could mean other cities may reconsider proposing similar projects.

“It wasn't surprising, [and] other cities might do something similar because they're usually very open to what they consider to be "smart city" innovations,” Zhang told VICE News. “But they will probably be careful because the Hangzhou proposal got considerable backlash.”

Listen and subscribe: Via Apple Podcasts | Via Spotify | Via Stitcher or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

Cover: A tourist takes a selfie with a security guard wearing an augmented reality (AR) eyewear equipped with an infrared temperature detector in Xixi Wetland Park in Hangzhou in east China's Zhejiang province Tuesday, March 24, 2020. The eyewear will alert the guard when it detects someone with fever signs, the latest weapon in the fight against COVID-19. (FeatureChina via AP Images)