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Security & privacy

New coronavirus app will tell you if you’ve been near an infected person

People frequently complain about the power and reach of Big Data in today’s digital economy. Now, more than ever, data is a global currency — and is what the biggest power-brokers on earth use to transform industries and economies.

You can see it with companies like Facebook, which uses highly targeted ad campaigns based on profile data to generate billions of dollars in revenue. Tap or click here to see how Facebook uses your data for advertising.

Some believe there may be a way to harness Big Data for the common good. The Chinese government has developed an app that uses internet data from Chinese citizens to tell users whether they’ve been near a person infected with the deadly novel coronavirus.

But by unleashing this technology, what sort of trade-off should we expect?

Chinese gov. to citizens: ‘Give us all your data’

According to state-run news agency Xinhua, the Chinese government has developed an app that tells you whether or not you’ve come into contact with people infected with coronavirus.

This is made possible thanks to the nation’s massive data collection apparatus, and includes factors like travel records, hospital visits and mobile phone data. Tap or click to see which American apps are collecting data on a massive scale.

The new app allows users in China to scan a QR code using other localized software like Alipay, WeChat or QQ. These apps are likely feeding even more data to the government-sponsored app, which can be useful for more precise metrics on the number of infected people.

The intent of the app is to curb the spread of infection by informing people they may be at risk or asymptomatic. To use the app, you must sign in with your name, phone number and government registered ID number. This will identify you, and will also grant the app permission to use your data in service of other users.

This app is exclusively made for Chinese citizens. No such equivalents exist for western markets — but let’s be honest, would we really even want an app that asks for this much data?

A small price to pay?

While some on the web are praising the app as a positive for Big Data, others are much more skeptical. Not only are participants giving up troves of personal information, but they’re also giving it directly to the government.

In fact, the Chinese government doesn’t even mince words surrounding the need for this data, and is more upfront than usual about how it uses the information to help citizens.

Xinhua is already alerting users about the three pieces of ID data the app will need to function, and is urging users to sign up and potentially isolate themselves if they’re found to have come into contact with an infected person, then to contact authorities.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think a system like this would work in America. Even if Facebook fed the government tons of data to help map the spread of disease, we still retain a high degree of personal freedom in what data we share and what data we’re required to share by our government.

But just because we’re not sharing our life stories with the government doesn’t mean we can’t track the spread of infection.

John Hopkins University has prepared one of the most up-to-date maps about the coronavirus spread, which includes the current number of cases, deaths and recoveries, as well as their specific locations. Tap or click here to access this useful disease-tracking tool — and don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.

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