China used localization and other data from hundreds of millions of smartphones to contain the spread of COVID-19, according to Chinese sources familiar with the program.
In addition to draconian quarantine procedures, which kept more than 150 million Chinese in place at the February peak of the Corona-virus epidemic, China used sophisticated computational methods on a scale never attempted in the West.
With more than 80,000 cases registered, China reported only 126 new cases yesterday, compared to 851 in South Korea and 835 in Iran, out of a total of 1,969 new cases worldwide.
Chinese sources emphasize that the artificial intelligence initiative supplemented basic public health measures, which centered on quarantines and aggressive efforts to convince Chinese citizens to change their behavior.
Chinese government algorithms can estimate the probability that a given neighborhood or even an individual has exposure to COVID-19 by matching the location of smartphones to known locations of infected individuals or groups.
The authorities use this information to use limited medical resources more efficiently by, for example, directing tests for the virus to high-risk subjects identified by the artificial intelligence algorithm.
All smartphones with enabled GPS give telecom providers a precise record of the user’s itinerary. Smartphone users in the United States and Europe can access their own data, but privacy laws prevent the government from collecting this data.
China has no such privacy constraints, and telecom providers have used locational data for years for advertising. A Chinese bank executive reports that his company purchases locational data from telecom providers.
“If you have walked by an auto dealership three times in the last few weeks, we send you a text advertising an auto loan,” the executive said. “We wouldn’t be allowed to do that in the West.
It is not known how long China has been able to crunch the massive amount of locating data generated by smartphones.
China also uses electronic records of medicine purchases to identify sick individuals who may have attempted to flee quarantine.
China would have analyzed where the infected individuals had been during the that six-week interval and identify all the possible points of intersection, and then required tests of all the possible intermediate carriers of the virus.
When the city of Wuhan emerged as the epicenter of the epidemic, the Chinese authorities knew that their supplies of test kits, medicines and above all oxygen, the life-saving treatment for severe pneumonia cases, were inadequate to meet the sudden demand.
China’s apparent success in containing COVID-19 may not be matched by Western countries that lack the political controls as well as the access to individuals’ personal data.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2020.