Feb 20, 2023 04:14 PM

Editorial: Disable China’s ‘Health Codes' as Soon as Possible

Photo: VCG
Photo: VCG

Since China’s Covid-19 policy was optimized at the end of 2022, the future of the “health code” system has remained a focus of public attention. And yet this remains to be finalized. Several Yuekang (Guangdong) health code services, such as service portals for the elderly and young children, health declarations and epidemic prevention workstations, were recently closed down, and all data collected for the services was taken offline and slated for destruction to guarantee personal information security. The Yuekang health code system remains operational. This news, however, has triggered public discussion concerning the abolition of health codes. At Thursday’s meeting of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, it was announced that “We have achieved major decisive success in our response to Covid-19.”

Now is the right moment for resolving the issue of health codes, and local authorities should shut down health code-related services as soon as possible.

During the three years of the Covid pandemic, various health codes have played a positive role in pandemic control. But they have also resulted in the collection of huge amounts of personal data, including sensitive, private information. The public concern regarding this is reasonable, since disclosure or abuse of this information could have unthinkable consequences. To prevent these, in January 2021, the State Council’s Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism released a regulation clearly requiring a strictly functional orientation for health codes, and stipulating that their use should not be expanded in scope. Central and local documents have also clarified that “health codes can be used only for their desired purposes.” If they go offline, “the message that relevant data have been destroyed must be announced for public supervision.” This is consistent with the aspirations underlying the enactment of the Data Security Law and the Personal Information Protection Law. However, an appalling event nonetheless occurred, setting a worrying precedent: customers of a rural bank in central China’s Henan province were issued red health codes to limit their mobility, when a concern about a bank’s solvency arose. The accountability system thus failed to achieve its desired effect, leading to public disillusionment. News concerning the abuse of health codes in other places has also been reported at times. Public concern will continue until the health code issue has been completely resolved. It remains a “Sword of Damocles,” dangling over public information security.

Although the central government has rolled out regulations covering the collection and processing of pandemic-related information, local governments continue to do their own thing. This chaos cannot continue. The health code issue, which impinges upon civil rights, represents a test of the nation’s capability for modern governance, along with the smooth implementation of Central Committee policies and decisions.

Health codes were introduced to control the pandemic. The resulting sacrifice of some rights on behalf of the public was supposed to be strictly limited to the pandemic. Health codes clearly and exclusively relate to public governance. Thus governments at all levels are obliged to protect health code information and handle it properly. Once health codes are no longer needed, the question of how to dispose of the related data must be put on the agenda. It’s a full chain covering data collection, application and deletion, all parts of which must be properly handled. As those whose personal information has been collected, we all have the right to know whether it has been abused, and whether it has been deleted when it should have been.

Even early on, when the pandemic was grim, far-sighted suggestions that early consideration be given to how to delete and destroy personal information collected for pandemic control were denied attention. Others paid no heed to this issue; some even poked fun at it, saying that “only bad people fear their information being collected.”

It is just this attitude of indifference that has encouraged the abuse of the health code.

It remains to be seen whether the code will ended up being canceled. After the peak of the recent Covid-19 wave, its use has been discontinued in most places, but it has still not been canceled. While its retention is a good way to prepare for a possible recurrence of the pandemic, some local authorities have another plan, the transformation of the health code into a code for governmental services, extending its function to areas including health care, transportation and tourism. This violates related central government regulations and also local governments’ previous commitments. It has become a source of public anxiety. For local authorities, the transformation of the code’s functions is not prudent.

For the central government, the solution is the introduction of more detailed, systematic norms for the elimination of the code. It is for the central government to make unified preparations and arrangements. Only in this way can the public have clear expectations and be reassured. At present, the deletion and destruction of such data is the top priority. The central government must formulate clear, stringent regulations, leaving departments already “addicted” to the collection of the public’s personal information no room to haggle — or to exploit loopholes — to misuse the code again. Both the process and the results should be made verifiable as soon as possible.

It is now imperative to prevent any possible violation of public information security. Like the Yuekang health code, all related services can be discontinued, and all data deleted. The main principle for handling health code information must be that, unless there are some cases in which it must be used — which should be viewed as absolute exceptions — the data should be deleted. Even if some individual services must to be retained, adequate assessment must be performed first. This requires strict procedures and earnest implementation of the principle that the “people in charge, and those undertaking review, bear responsibility.” At midnight on Dec. 13, 2022, according to operators, the Travel History Code was simultaneously removed from all their platforms, along with users’ travel history data. That night, the main unit responsible for the code, the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, confirmed that it had deleted all related data. This decisive, highly praised step provides a worthwhile example of how health codes should be handled elsewhere.

The key to alleviating social anxiety to increase transparency. The vast majority of the public has no idea what information of theirs has been collected and used, where this mass of information has been stored, whether it is secure, whether it will be retained or whether it will be used elsewhere. Local authorities must therefore release information concerning the health code to the public on a regular basis. Where there is the potential to exploit the health code, infringing upon personal information, the public has the right to seek redress from the relevant departments or judicial bodies. Meanwhile, supervision of public opinion must be strengthened. Only through openness and transparency can power be confined within its institutional cage.

Over the past three years, as witness to the uphill battle of a huge nation against Covid-19, the health code has become laden with the overwhelmingly bitter memories of the Chinese people. Now it is time to turn a new leaf. We hope that China will waste no time deleting the health code app, because for the public, this will represent the most convincing confirmation that China’s response to the virus has been a major, and decisive, success.

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