ChinAI #85: Privacy in the Time of Coronavirus

Plus, A Critique of the Narrow View of National Security

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Greetings from a land where drifters are allowed to find their way back home…

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Feature Translation: The Public Interest and Personal Privacy in a Time of Crisis

Context: A March 6 blog post authored by Hu Yong, a Professor at Peking University’s School of Journalism and Communication, and a well-known new media critic and active blogger/microblogger whose microblog has 800,000 followers. Hu writes that “the infringement of privacy by public health surveillance can be described as shocking” in the response to the coronavirus.

Key Takeaways:

  • Hu draws from two reports — first one by Southern Metropolis Daily that details how the personal information of more than 7000 people who returned home from Wuhan (for the holidays) was leaked. For instance, Wu Xiao, freshman student at a university of geosciences in Wuhan, returned home to Ningdu County (Jiangxi Province) for the holidays on January 10. Two weeks later, she saw on her family's Wechat group that there was a "Data Sheet of People who Returned to Ningdu from Wuhan" separated into four types of transportation methods into Ningdu (e.g. flight, rail). Apart from her, there were 400 or 500 people who had their personal information leaked, including their identification number, phone number, specific home address, train information, etc. Feeling angry and helpless, Wu Xiao said, "College students and workers returning home for the winter holidays is normal, how come some people say we are sinners for returning?"

  • Second is a Xinhua Daily Telegraph column telling the story of Xu Chang, a native of Hubei, who went with her husband to the countryside in her husband’s native Xuzhou to spend the New Year. When returning to their apartment community in the Shunyi District of Beijing on February 16th, the neighborhood security staff said Xu Chang could not enter because her ID showed she was from Hubei (Wuhan is the capital of this province). Even after they tried to prove they had not gone to Hubei by texting their telecom provider to get mobile location data for the past 14 days (these types of queries exceeded 50 million in the first week the big data platform was available), they were denied entry to their homes. Commenting on this type of ID card/hukou discrimination — many Hubei netizens have posted that they have not been able to return home because “their ID cards start with 420” — Professor Hu writes, “Here, private spaces have vanished without a trace.”

FULL(ish) TRANSLATION: Hu Yong on Protecting Personal Privacy in a Time of Crisis

Mini-Reflections and ChinAI Links (Four to Forward)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how so much of my research and thinking on technology & international politics has been co-opted by such a narrow view of national security — namely, that the U.S. needs to be more technologically dominant than China. The proliferation of the U.S.-Sino AI Arms Race meme is a clear byproduct of this view. To put it bluntly, it’s a glorified dick-measuring contest. A lot of my work tries to provide more clarity on what technological dominance even means — my testimony before the U.S. China Commission to present a better framework for comparing “national AI capabilities” for instance — but all of that is still operating within the confines of such a narrow view of national security. All I’m doing is offering a better ruler, if you will. It genuinely makes me sad how much of the mental space of other young bright minds has also been sucked up by this narrow view — it shapes which research projects we pursue, the justification for certain points has to be couched in this narrow view (the U.S. should be open to Chinese immigrants not because it’s a guiding principle rooted in our nation’s founding but because it increases our technological capabilities)!!.

I know there are a diversity of views in the U.S. national security community (and I’m painting with a broad, crude brush), but it sometimes feels like we are running a campaign to “Make America Technologically Great Again (MATGA).” Although, we may need to choose a different color for the campaign hats, since the red may be confused for support of the Soviets — oops, excuse me, the Chinese.

To be clear, understanding how AI affects U.S.-Sino military dynamics is obviously very important to national security. But military competition is affected by factors other than technological size, and the conversation about national security should not be dominated by military concerns. What would a broader vision of national security look like? How about one that values factors such as the health of our institutions in protecting individual rights like privacy just as much as the strength of our national innovation system. Or one that believes that a society that avoids both digital authoritarianism and surveillance capitalism — even if that third way slightly reduces intelligence capabilities or economic productivity — is more secure. One that recognizes actions like the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, even if the justifications of military necessity were actually true (which they weren’t), were still net-negative for the security of the American nation.

Or maybe it could start with this week’s must-read, which helped me break out a little from this narrow view of national security.

Must-read: The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity

Toby Ord, Senior Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute, presents a grand vision of the potential human flourishing of the future as well as a wake-up call to the existential catastrophes (e.g. climate change, engineered pathogens, nuclear weapons, unaligned artificial intelligence) from which we could never come back. In combination, ending these existential risks is among the most pressing moral issues of our time. The link lets you subscribe to Toby’s newsletter to download the first chapter now. ***Available in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand — available for pre-order in the US & Canada (comes out March 24th)

Should-listen: Institute for Freedom and Community Streamed Talk on China: Big Data, AI, and Privacy

Was really powerful to participate alongside Joy Ma and Xiao Qiang in this panel discussion at St. Olaf’s. There’s a really powerful moment at the around the 1 hr. 1 minute mark where Xiao notes how all three of us are connected to China but in different ways (Xiao Qiang, for instance, is an exiled dissident) — and how our personal relationship to China inevitably seeps into our differing perspectives on AI-enabled surveillance in China. Personally, I see the acknowledgement of one’s personal biases as a sign of strength not weakness, and I think there should be more of these types of reflections on how one’s personal experiences in China/with China frames how one views China.

  • Consider Trump’s trade advisor Peter Navarro. Let’s just say that my hypothesis is that the relationship between these two is statistically significant: his views on U.S.-China relations and his belief that “you’ve got to be nuts to eat Chinese food.”

Should-read: Chinese Hospitals Deploy AI to Help Diagnose Covid-19

Tom Simonite for Wired looks at the use of Infervision’s Covid-19 diagnostic tool in Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University. A project that makes one medical imaging research director “both skeptical and cautiously optimistic” — it’s plausible that the algorithm could help staff reading CT scans to work faster but it would only make a significant difference if radiologists’ time is the major bottleneck in a hospital’s operations.

Should-read: Chinese Citizens are Racing Against Censors to Preserve Coronavirus Memories on Github

By Jane Li for Quartz, Chinese citizens are using sites like GitHub to preserve memories of the coronavirus epidemic erased from the Internet by censors. Just another example of how Quartz is consistently providing some of the best China tech coverage.

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 PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a researcher at the Center for the Governance of AI at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.

Check out the archive of all past issues here & please subscribe here to support ChinAI under a Guardian/Wikipedia-style tipping model (everyone gets the same content but those who can pay for a subscription will support access for all).

Any suggestions or feedback? Let me know at or on Twitter at @jjding99