COVID-19 ISO Insights

China's Coronavirus App Determines if User Has Been Near Infected Individuals

March 2, 2020

By: Christopher Sirota, CPCU

What if your smartphone could warn you that you've been near a person with a contagious disease? That's more or less the app that BBC has reported that China has released to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus (SARS-Cov-2).

According to the article, when users of the app register their identification, the app can then search the big data of health information collected by the Chinese government to match the user's information with the information of "confirmed, suspected or mild cases of the coronavirus." The BBC explains some matching criteria for determining if the user may have been in close contact include the following:

  • "People who work closely together, share a classroom, or live in the same home
  • Medical staff, family members or other people who have been in close contact with patients and their caregivers
  • Passengers and crew who have been on planes, trains and other forms of transport with an infected person."

A related article from MIT Technology Review noted that one expert opined that since the big data set of health information is partly based on tests that may not be 100% accurate, false positives may scare an app user, and false negative information may lead to a user's false sense of security. The Review further noted that the app does not appear to take into account the health status of the user, which can be a factor in determining how truly vulnerable the person may be.

Though the Review also explained that the use of the app could lead to the stigmatization of some people, one expert speculated that in regions with limited healthcare resources, if some sort of anonymization could be added, such an app could be useful in containing an epidemic.

More Apps

The Wall Street Journal reported that several city governments in China have worked with tech companies to create apps to help individuals self-identify whether they have symptoms and whether they have traveled in infected regions. The article explained that some of these apps have red-yellow-green categories, with green indicating most likely not infected. Some of the cities are thus reportedly requesting individuals show their smartphones at checkpoints, such as subway entrances, to confirm they have a green category displayed in order to pass.

Of note, the article did describe one person who claimed to have no symptoms and not to have traveled through infected regions, and yet still received the red category via the app. Some cities reportedly have implemented an appeal process to address these occurrences.

Lastly, the Journal noted that over 1,000 individuals were identified as lying about their health status and/or travel history.