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Covid-19 or the acceleration of the technological hold on our privacy!

Guillaume RIO
6 minutes
While the new coronavirus has been declared a pandemic by the WHO (World Health Organization), China is showing signs of improvement. While activities in Wuhan, the cradle of the epidemic, are gradually resuming, the Chinese government can largely welcome its “Made In China 2025” program.

The fact

The Chinese strategic programe“Made in China 2025”, set up by Prime Minister Li Keqiang in 2015 and whose major ambition is to turn China into an “AI Nation”, has taken on a whole new dimension with Covid-19.

Every day during the pandemic, President Xi Jinping kept hammering: “The fight against the epidemic cannot be achieved without the support of science and technology (18/03/2020). Time seems to have proved him right in the light of the latest figures.

With the appearance of the coronavirus, Beijing has asked its technological giants to become actively involved in the fight against the epidemic by giving them full powers.

First, BATX (Baidu, Alibaba, tencent, Xiaomi) expanded their surveillance capabilities to help the government locate people who may have been in contact with the virus.

Finally, they have also strengthened their action in the field of so-called “4P” medicine (predictive, preventive, personalised, participatory).

The decoding

In recent years, China’s digital giants have been asserting themselves as head-on competitors to their Silicon Valley counterparts. But unlike the GAFAMs, their strategies are often confused with those of the Chinese state and its control infrastructures.

  • Control and surveillance

Since February 11, the Chinese government has partnered with technology giants Alibaba and Tencent to develop a color-coded health assessment system (called Alipay Health Code) that tracks millions of people every day.

The smartphone application was deployed for the first time in Hangzhou with the collaboration of Alibaba. It assigns three colors to people (green, yellow or red) based on their movements or the fact that one person has been in contact with another and their medical history. The colour code is used to decide whether a person should be quarantined or allowed to frequent public spaces. Citizens are required to login to Alibaba’s Alipay application. Only people who have been given a green color-coded QR are allowed in public spaces. More than 200 Chinese cities use this system, which will soon be extended to the entire country.

Tencent, through its Wechat messaging system, which has more than a billion users, has developed a similar program for the city of Shenzhen, in the south of the country.

In the same vein, the state-owned China Technology Group Corporation (CETC) has just launched an application called “Close Contact Detector” that can alert any user who crosses the path of a potentially infected person. For its part, Baidu (Google’s equivalent in China) has created a map layer in addition to the standard Baidu Map application that shows in real time the locations of confirmed and suspected cases of viruses so that people can avoid the most affected areas.

For greater objectivity, the flagship facial recognition solutions such as SenseTime, Face++ and Megvii have optimized their solution, which to date is capable of accurately detecting body temperature at distances greater than 3 meters and in the midst of compact passenger traffic, even when the person is wearing a mask or hat. These sensors and body scanners have been installed in large numbers in subways, bus stations and surveillance drones in major cities. They make it possible to monitor the temperature of individuals in each dwelling by avoiding direct human contact. The inhabitants who are called place themselves on their balconies so that their body heat can be measured by drone’s thermosensors. 

  • Telemedicine

For its part, Tencent, with its health entity WeDoctor (integrated into Wechat), has more than 3,200 hospitals, 360,000 doctors, 15,000 pharmacies and 210 million registered users on its platform. Whether automated or not, patients declare their personal data and medical history as they go along. The AI, the beneficiary of this information, can thus issue a pre-diagnosis. Depending on the severity, the report is transferred to a doctor in order to validate, for example, the delivery of medication to the patient’s home. Just like Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba (AliHealth) have the same type of online medical consultation platform within their super App.

  • Cloud computing and artificial intelligence

Upstream, Alibaba (Alibaba Cloud) has developed an AI system capable of detecting COVID-19 in a CT scan of a patient’s chest in 20 seconds, with an assumed accuracy of 96%. The system was trained on images and data from 5,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and is reportedly already in use in at least 200 health facilities in China.

The same Alibaba unit has made its platform available to global research institutions to help them accelerate their efforts in the field of coronavirus gene sequencing.

Baidu also provides an algorithm called “LinerFold” free of charge to genetic testing agencies, disease control centres and research institutions worldwide. The algorithm has the potential to help scientists understand the genetic makeup of the coronavirus and could contribute to vaccine development efforts.

By 2030, China is expected to dominate the world’s artificial intelligence. Currently, 50% of the world’s research spending on the subject is Chinese, 38% American. The State, to stem the tide of Codiv-19, provides Chinese digital giants with full access to the personal data of their citizens and facilitates their advance in terms of AI!

Yang Minglu, General Manager of the Baidu Healthcare Unit, said: “In the future, the Baidu Healthcare Unit will continue to focus on research and technology development and an intelligent healthcare system, building a one-stop health management service platform and actively participating in the development of public health in China.”

Mastering data health means acquiring decisive power. Health will be the main vector for the emancipation of ecosystems. By appropriating health data, players such as BATX, are intervening beyond the borders hitherto held by governments, which are increasingly unable to satisfy health services. These new entrants establish the most intimate dialogue possible with the consumer, with no possible backtracking. Health will make them a true trusted third party and will complement their product and service offering decisively to create a life package in the literal sense of the word.

Will the American digital giants, like Amazon, which continues its breakthrough in the healthcare sector with the launch of Amazon Care, accelerate their hold on our lives by becoming a major player in the fight against Covid-19?

Guillaume RIO
Specialist of BATX & GAFA ecosystems and passionate about China, Guillaume analyzes the impact of new technologies on our lives.
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