The dangers of good medicine turning into poison
Greetings from a world where…
everything is everywhere all at once (my mind is still blown)
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Feature Translation: The Abuse of Red Health Codes
Context: Last week, hundreds of people who banked with regional banks in Henan Province traveled to Zhengzhou, the capital, to demand access to their funds (which had been frozen due to corruption-related inquiries). According to news reports, including an investigation by Sixth Tone, the protestors’ health codes turned red (see screenshot below from one depositor at these banks who lives in Beijing) when they tried to enter into railway stations and hotels. This situation raised a lot of questions.
The most obvious: What are the implications of authorities using health codes for purposes aside from disease control (like controlling protests)? How can individuals protect their rights if they are assigned a red health code, in a case where there’s a suspected abuse of administrative power? Southern Metropolis Daily’s Privacy Guard Team (隐私护卫队), a portal connected to the Nandu Personal Information Protection Research Center, interviewed some experts to explore the stakes of this case.
Key Takeaways: What’s the impact of abusing the health code system like this for purposes outside of epidemic prevention?
Wang Xixin, a professor at Peking University Law School, told the reporter: “If the health code’s purpose for epidemic prevention is extended to other aspects, or even evolves into a 'social stability maintenance code', it will first violate the legitimacy of the purpose of the health code itself and violate the law. Secondly, adding some irrelevant factors to the system by human intervention during the coding process is a simple and crude abuse of administrative power. Plus, the unauthorized use of the health code for other purposes will not only affect the data system of the health code, but also have an impact on the credibility of the entire health code system.”
Lao Dongyan, a professor at Tsinghua University Law School, said, “If some local departments use the health code like this, the public is unlikely to have confidence in the government’s epidemic prevention.” She’s an outspoken voice on these issues, and I’ve featured her blog posts on ChinAI before.
Later, Professor Wang stated, “We should take this incident as a warning…otherwise, the 'health code' will be transformed into an omnipotent 'almighty code', which will become a willful and arbitrary 'weapon of mass destruction' for local powers, which will not only seriously infringe on citizens' rights, but also overdraw the government's credibility.”
Who was responsible for this abuse of red health codes?
The Privacy Guard Team first went to Henan’s provincial health commission. One staff person said that the Henan big data administration was responsible for assigning health codes for people arriving in Henan from other provinces (which fits this case). But a staff member from the Henan big data office refuted this claim, explaining that all code assignment is managed locally. So if the people went to banks in Zhengzhou to demand their money, then the local office in Zhengzhou was responsible.
Naturally, the next step was to call Zhengzhou’s big data administration, but they weren’t able to get through. Apparently, there is some “social control” department under the Zhengzhou agency for health code management that has responsibility for this situation. When this story came out (June 14), the relevant departments in Henan and Zhengzhou still had not clarified why depositors were assigned red health codes.
Jeff’s comment: this is a good look at the bureaucratic confusion under the veneer of seamless big data integration.
The big question for me: will health codes go away after the pandemic is over? The experts interviewed by Southern Metropolis Daily say they should:
Lao Dongyan says health codes are a temporary measure to combat covid. Even for this limited purpose, she advocates that data storage be limited and that data be deleted after one month from collection.
Xu Ke, director of the Digital Economy and Legal Innovation Research Center of the University of International Business and Economics, expressed a strong view: “Currently, the reason why we default to 'travel with the health code' is that we have to make compromises because we are in the middle of the epidemic. We take freedom as our normal state, and take being not free as our abnormality. Once the epidemic is over or alleviated, we should promptly return to normalcy, and we should have freedom of behavior without health code restrictions…The health code assignment is an emergency power. It is a ‘good medicine’ during the epidemic. It can be taken temporarily, but if it is taken for a long time, it will cause the same harm as a ‘poison.’”
ChinAI Links (Four to Forward)
Must-read: Dueling Perspectives in AI and U.S.–China Relations: Technonationalism vs. Technoglobalism
My chapter in The Oxford Handbook of AI Governance is now online. I argue: Analysis about the potential effects of AI on U.S.–China relations is strongly rooted in technonationalism, which emphasizes interstate competition over technological assets. By decentering the nation-state as the key unit of analysis for technological change, this chapter presents an alternative framework for comprehending the implications of AI for U.S.–China relations. It first articulates how transnational networks of both firms and individuals complicate the calculation of the U.S. and China’s “national interests” in AI. It then probes how AI advances, such as those in machine translation, could bind the two countries even closer together. Taking technoglobalism seriously is essential to rebalancing discussions about how AI could transform U.S.–China relations.
Justin Bullock, a co-editor of this handbook, posted a great thread that summarized this chapter:
Should-read: AI White Paper (2022) by CAICT
CSET has completed a full translation of a Chinese think tank’s white apper on the state of AI in China and around the globe. Two persistent themes: 1) emphasis on the development of engineering practices in AI; 2) trustworthy, secure, and safe AI.
Should-read: The Bridge Builder
For The Wire China, Katrina Northrop has published an in-depth and fair profile of Eric Schmidt’s influence on U.S.-China tech competition. I’m quoted saying something I’ve said many times before in these pages and elsewhere: the U.S. nat sec community consistently overhypes China’s AI capabilities. This hype has permeated the pool of ideas and assumptions in these circles. Eric is a big fish, but he’s swimming in the same pond as everyone else.
Baobao Zhang, Noemi Dreksler, and their team have published results from a survey of top machine learning researchers on their views about AI progress.
***Much of this work was done at the Centre for the Governance of AI. Related: the application deadline for GovAI winter fellowships is August 1, 2022. Details about timing, application process, and the link to the application form can be found here.
Thank you for reading and engaging.
These are Jeff Ding's (sometimes) weekly translations of Chinese-language musings on AI and related topics. Jeff is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, sponsored by Stanford's Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.
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