COVID-19 Prevention and Control Using Big Data Technology in China: from an ethical perspective

On: October 4, 2021
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Given China’s regulatory applications for Covid-19 to monitor the country’s health, it’s critical to engage in the discourse over the significant ethical implications that may arise from the health and personal data collection phenomenon that is highly likable to be re-engineered into the future state surveillance systems. Contextualizing the radical and imposing privacy concerns this accompanies.


‘’Critical Questions for Big Data’’ by Boyd and Crawford, I selected one of their six main critical questions for Big Data. Referring to ‘‘ just because it is accessible does not make it ethical’’. 

The relevant themes discussed are, there are significant questions of truth, control, and power in Big Data studies: data is created in highly context-sensitive spaces, and it is entirely possible that some users would not give permission for their data to be used elsewhere. While unquestionably problematic in implementation (Schrag 2010), the goal of IRBs is to provide a framework for evaluating the ethics of research inquiry and to make certain that checks and balances are put into place to protect subjects. Practices like ‘informed consent and protecting the privacy of informants’ are intended to empower participants of earlier abuses in the medical and social sciences (Blass 2004; Reverby 2009). Although IRBs cannot always predict the harm of a particular study– their value is in prompting researchers to think critically about the ethics of their project. When ignored, Big Data collection may arise future implications. In order to act ethically, it is important that researchers reflect on the importance of accountability: in the field of research and to the research subjects. 

Boyd & Crawford do not specify the environment in which this piece was written, whether it is self-imposed responsibility or Western culture because, in a totalitarian regime where companies work for profit, there is no accountability.

China’s Health Code Application(s)

During the Covid-19 outbreak, China implemented a Covid regulating application(s) for their citizens. These applications are provided by Tencent or Alibaba which are integrated into WeChat or Alipay. To keep the pandemic under control, data is collected using this application to track citizens’ Covid status and movements across the country (Trauth-Goik, 2021). On the contrary to other countries, every local authority in China has its own application and does not have an Institutional Review Boards (IBMs) as Boyd and Crawford mention to ensure ethical data collection. 

The goal of these applications is to determine whether citizens are allowed to travel or if they are obligated to quarantine where measures of mass immobilization were adopted across the country. Citizens will be given a green, yellow, or red ‘health score’ in the form of a QR code based on a questionnaire with basic medical questions and their travel history. Green is acceptable. If any of their family members have a red health score, or if they have minor complaints, they receive an orange QR-code. Mandatory medical observation and a fourteen-day quarantine are indicated by the color red. Traveling with an orange or red QR code is prohibited. See figure 1. (Cong, 2021). 

Image 1

Health information is linked to the personal information from citizens because the applications are part of the ecosystem of the aforementioned parties. In fact, not only do governments conduct checks also; retailers, employers, and landlords do (Cong, 2021). 

Ethical questions regarding China’s Health Code applications and their implementation of Big Data 

This brings us to the ethical issues that Chinese citizens face due to the lack of ethical accountability towards users of these applications:

Firstly being, government or private businesses regulations

The case for the Chinese citizen is that they are not protected because there is a lack of accountability since it is provided by private businesses and the government does not act of providing any accountability to its citizens. (Cong, 2021).  

Second, is the current utility versus future misuse

The recent study of Trauth-Goik et. al. demonstrates how the state council intends to keep some of the new capabilities and incorporate them into a larger national monitoring strategy. As China’s Big Data gathering expands, it will be able to shape, direct, and even coerce behavior on a large scale, resembling a surveillance state. During the pandemic, the applications expanded into a rewarding system that distinguished ‘’good and bad pandemic behavior’’(Bernot et. al. 2021). In their text, Boyd and Crawford state that through Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) they are able to ensure that collected data will not be misused now nor in the future (Boyd, Crawford, 2021). A prime example, ‘’Covid applications are discussed to be used to trace people that could not previously be found, effectively turning a health service into a security tool’’ (Mittelstaedt, 2021). In the long run, this will almost certainly lead to increasing citizen surveillance. “Function creep” is the process of adopting a surveillance system for one purpose and then employing it for another (Bernot et. al. 2021).

Third, acting quickly versus ethically thought out design

The virus’s rapid spread necessitates an immediate response. The QR code system has far-reaching social and personal consequences. It is critical that these monitoring technologies are designed with transparency and accountability in mind. People can become accustomed to top-down surveillance and function creep if these systems aren’t carefully evaluated (by IRBs) or their potential future uses aren’t questioned (Bernot et. al. 2021). ‘’Accountability requires rigorous thinking about the ramifications of Big Data, rather than assuming that ethic boards will necessarily do the work of ensuring that people are protected’’ (Boyd & Crawford, 2012). Accountability does not prevent the unwelcome use (abuse) of mass surveillance. There are no IRBs or other accountability mechanisms active in China. 

Lastly, control versus trust

The goal of the application system is to be able to conduct street checks effectively to determine who was allowed outside. While many Western countries viewed these measurements as too radical and personally invasive, multiple studies as a recent study constituted that even though the system was intrusive, that ‘’this state-controlled, big data monitoring was supported by the public because of its effectiveness’’ (Chuncheng, Ross, 2021). However, public resistance was shown when the health codes were re-engineered and implemented for other purposes. For instance, collecting citizens’ lifestyle habits (Liu, 2021). ‘’Many are not aware of the multiplicity of agents and algorithms currently gathering and storing their data for further use’’ (Boyd & Crawford, 2012). 


Considering that Covid-19 is still shaping worldwide health it is important to engage with the discourse around the significant ethical implications that may arise around the health and personal collection of Big Data phenomenon which may be re-engineered into future state surveillance systems in China. Concerning for Chinese citizens is that their personal and medical data is being used for additional and invasive purposes which are not initially communicated with them. As also stated, ‘’ users are not necessarily aware of all the multiple users, profits, and other gains that come from the information they have posted (Boyd & Crawford, 2012). Concluding with a stance to Boyd and Crawford’s text, ‘just because it is accessible does not make it ethical to use’’. 


Bernot, Ausma, Alexander Trauth-Goik, and Susan Trevaskes. 2021. ‘Handling COVID-19 with Big Data in China: Increasing “Governance Capacity” or “Function Creep”?’ Australian Journal of International Affairs 75 (5): 480–86.

Blass, Thomas. 2004. ‘Thomas Blass. The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. Xxiv + 360 Pp., Illus., Apps., Bibl., Index. New York: Basic Books, 2004. $26 (Cloth). | Isis: Vol 98, No 4’. 2004.

Boyd, danah, and Kate Crawford. 2012. ‘Critical Questions for Big Data’. Information, Communication & Society 15 (5): 662–79.

Chuncheng, Liu, and Graham Ross. 2021. ‘Making Sense of Algorithms: Relational Perception of Contact Tracing and Risk Assessment during COVID-19 – Chuncheng Liu, Ross Graham, 2021’. 2021.

Cong, Wanshu. 2021. ‘From Pandemic Control to Data-Driven Governance: The Case of China’s Health Code’. Frontiers in Political Science 3: 8.

Liu, Chuncheng. 2021. ‘Chinese Public’s Support for COVID-19 Surveillance in Relation to the West’. Surveillance & Society 19 (1): 89–93.

Mittelstaedt, Jean Christopher. 2021. ‘The Grid Management System in Contemporary China: Grass-Roots Governance in Social Surveillance and Service Provision’. China Information, May, 0920203X211011565.

Reverby, Susan M. 2012. ‘Zachary M. Schrag. Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965-2009. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2010. Pp. Xii, 245. $45.00’. The American Historical Review 117 (2): 484–85.

Trauth-Goik, Alexander, Ausma Bernot, and Sue Trevaskes. n.d. ‘China’s “Surveillance Creep”: How Big Data COVID Monitoring Could Be Used to Control People Post-Pandemic’. The Conversation. Accessed 1 October 2021.

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