China is leading the way – a global threat to privacy after Corona

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The world’s governments are being tried in times of crisis. The democratic varnish easily crackles when our political rulers experience the loss of control. Country after country has now introduced something similar to the state of emergency and allowing privacy violations for what they claim is a good purpose.

– But how many of all these measures could become permanent? How will our attitudes towards privacy shift after Corona? That is two very legitimate questions to ask today. We do not want to follow China’s example, says Fredrik Hammargården, Head of Commercialization at the startup company Indivd, which has developed a privacy-friendly alternative technology for facial recognition.

The coronavirus has spread rapidly throughout the world, and many countries have taken a number of different intrusive actions in order to combat the dreaded infection.

– South Korea is keeping a close eye on its residents with the help of facial recognition, video surveillance, GPS tracking and tracking of credit card transactions. Others are warned via SMS and websites if an infected person shows up at the gym, in the bar, in the grocery store or in the hotel. Apps and websites have made it possible to see where infected people are, and thus avoid them.

– Hong Kong uses so-called geofencing – a type of virtual fence – to quarantine people for 14 days. Anyone arriving at Hong Kong Airport will also receive a wristband with a QR code, which they will link to the StayHomeSafe app. The app learns to understand the signals from your home and an alarm is sent to the government if someone then leaves home. Hong Kong residents who violate the quarantine risk imprisonment for six months and a fine of up to the equivalent of SEK 33,000.

– Taiwan has for a long time used mobile data to gather information about where citizens have been and who they have met.

– Russia has started to use facial recognition and mobile data in Moscow to track the movement patterns of infected persons.

– Germany, Austria, and Italy require mobile operators to provide location data and user data to monitor compliance with the quarantine and other restrictions. The intention is also to use mobile data to understand how the coronavirus is spreading by mapping movements back in time, which can help predict new outbreaks.

– Poland requires people in quarantine to regularly send selfies to an app, which uses location data and facial recognition. The police are alerted if you fail to submit a selfie within 20 minutes.

– France uses drones and helicopters to make sure that people stay at home. The country also wants to be able to allow a limited collection of personal data in the shadow of the corona crisis.

– Ireland is considering gathering people’s Google login.

– Romania wants to enable GPS tracking of people.

– Denmark and Norway are running projects, where telecom operators will help authorities or civil society to trace the infection.

– Sweden allows secret data reading that allows the police to hack and install viruses in suspicious persons’ mobiles. The Swedish Public Health Authority is planning for a monitoring system where they can digitally monitor the spread of the infection. They are also discussing the next step in terms of an officially sanctioned app, which collects information from the public. Something they currently are analyzing and hope for positive decisions in the very near future. What will be the next step?

China’s social credit system

But China has probably taken it furthest. The country, like its neighbor South Korea, uses facial recognition to keep track of its people and to create a “perfect society”. China’s social credit system will be expanded during this year to continuously monitor and rate 1.4 billion people.

– The system is based on mass surveillance with the help of facial recognition. Around 200 million surveillance cameras are already installed in China’s cities and there will be approximately 625 million cameras when the system is fully developed later this year. That is why it is important to build new privacy innovations and show the possibility of creating value in data while preventing a similar development in the West, says Fredrik Hammargården, commercialization manager at Indivd.

Xi Jinping’s wet dream

China’s new social credit system began to be built with regional testing as a national database in 2014 and will be fully developed by the end of 2020. The purpose is to rank citizens so that those with high points will have it easier to, for example, borrow money, put their children in good schools or even get an advanced place in dating sites, while those with low points can find it difficult to get a good job, buy air and train tickets and shop at e-commerce sites.

President Xi Jinping has launched his “Chinese dream” which means that the country in 2021 – which marks a hundred years since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party – must have been transformed into a “fairly prosperous society” and that China in 2049 – a hundred years after its founding of the People’s Republic of China – should be a fully developed country.

Mandatory for everyone

– To use credit ratings of people who want to borrow money is nothing strange, banks in the West have done this forever. And Internet giants like Google, Amazon, and Facebook have for a long time been using our systems to map people’s buying habits. But the Chinese social credit system goes much further in the mapping of all or their 1.4 billion citizens online and offline, says Fredrik Hammargården.

On the one hand, the system will be compulsory for everyone, and on the other, points will be given to all individuals. Points which will affect the individuals more or less daily throughout their lives. If they are driving a car too fast or not stopping for a red light in a crossing, not paying bills on time, cheating in computer games or acting inappropriately on social media. Other things that can give minus points include missing the appointment with a doctor or dentist, missing a job interview or restaurant reservation, playing music at high volume or eating and drinking on bus trips or in the subway.

– The system is based on mass surveillance with the help of facial recognition. Around 200 million surveillance cameras are already installed in China’s cities and there will be about 625 million cameras when the system is fully developed later this year, says Fredrik Hammargården.

Every individual gets points

China’s rapid development in artificial intelligence (AI), for example through facial recognition and large amounts of data, allows authorities to quickly monitor infringements both outdoors, such as going against the red guy, and indoors, such as shoplifting or excessive shopping.

Even foreigners entering China have to undergo not only fingerprint testing but also facial recognition.

All Chinese citizens start with 1,000 points, which then increases or decreases depending on how they manage their public and private life. Citizens with low points can be blacklisted from, for example, from buying real estate. The consequences of a low credit score vary but it usually seems to be travel restrictions at the moment.

Millions of people have already been affected

The government-friendly newspaper Global Times reported, In December 2019, that 13.5 million people in the social credit system had already been blacklisted as “unreliable”. In June 2019, 27 million airline tickets and 6 million high-speed train tickets had been denied to people who had low social credit scores.

There are also special rules for different cities and regions. For example, people in Shanghai can be penalized with minus points, or even blacklisted, if they do not visit their aging parents regularly.

The Chinese government has partnered with eight private companies to develop algorithms and systems for how the social credit ranking should work. The companies are among China’s leading companies which include China Rapid Finance, a partner of Tencent, which owns China’s leading social media channel WeChat, and Sesame Credit, a subsidiary of Ant Financial Services Group within Alibaba, China’s dominant e-commerce company.

– We have been very pleased that GDPR, for now, is preventing a similar development. And it is with this background that we at Indivd have devoted so much power and time to build an alternative technical solution. Certainly, there is a benefit of being able to map, for example, the spread of infections. But Indivd proves that there are privacy-friendly ways to turn to rather than choosing to violate people’s right to privacy through the incorrect use of new technology and traditional facial recognition, concludes Fredrik Hammargården.

For more information contact:

Fredrik Hammargården, Head of Commercialization, 004673 840 65 27, fredrik@indivd.com

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