December 1, 2022

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It's the Technology

How Public Health Technology Can Be Misused To Stifle Dissent


Officials in the Chinese province of Henan have apparently misused their public health surveillance technology to stop a protest by ordinary citizens upset about bank fraud and financial impropriety.

According to multiple sources including the New York Times, dozens of protestors from across China travelled to the city of Zhengzhou for a planned protest against a bank freeze on their savings as part of a broader financial scandal in China. But when they arrived in the city, many found that the health codes on their phone apps had mysteriously turned from green to red — indicating they would be forbidden to travel around the city.

As CNN noted, anyone with a red code “immediately becomes persona non grata. They are banned from all public venues and transport, and are often subject to weeks of government quarantine.” Furthermore, the red codes only seemed to affect bank depositors.

One would-be protestor who only gave his last name of Chen told reporters, “They are putting digital handcuffs on us.

Another protestor, Mr. Tom Zhang, was delayed by the police for 12 hours and was only released after he agreed to return to his home town — after which, “his health code suddenly turned green.”

This seeming misuse of power sparked a heated public discussion on Chinese social media.

Eventually, the health status codes of the protestors were corrected. Government anti-corruption authorities also disciplined or fired 5 local officials for switching the health codes of more than a thousand bank customers without authorization.”

So far, I have not heard of any similar misuse of power within the US or Canada. Nor does the US mandate the same degree of internal surveillance over its citizens as China.

However, the episode in China highlights the potential for misuse of a public health surveillance system for political purposes — in this case to stifle internal dissent. The enormous power of modern technology merely amplifies this potential.

Although public health restrictions on travel and commerce might be justifiable as a temporary emergency measure in extraordinary circumstances, the longer those powers remain in effect, the greater the potential for government misuse. I hope citizens of the US and other countries around the world take heed of this real-world lesson from China.



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