Personal data for residents of Chinese cities at the center of a ballooning coronavirus outbreak are being spread online, as the stigma surrounding people from the worst-affected areas grows.

Why it matters: More than 17,000 people in China have been infected with a new coronavirus, which was first reported in late December in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province in central China. The epidemic, which had killed 361 people in the country as of Monday morning, has resulted in widespread panic and uncertainty as the rate of new infections shows no sign of abating.

  • The government has locked down 15 cities in Hubei, effectively quarantining more than 50 million, the largest such measure in history.
  • People from Hubei, those who have come into contact with individuals from the area, and individuals who have recently visited the epicenter of the outbreak have been subject to greater surveillance as the government attempts to curb the spread of disease.

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Details: Hubei residents have found information including their phone and ID numbers, home addresses, and travel itineraries circulating in chat groups on popular messaging app WeChat, Sina reported.

  • Returnees to many areas have been requested to register with authorities when returning home from Hubei over the Chinese New Year holiday season, and in doing so, provide personal information to officials tasked with monitoring the movements of people coming from areas hit the hardest.
  • However, this information has been shared widely on messaging platform WeChat by local authorities, according to the report. These files can then be sent to other groups and users using the platform’s forwarding feature.
  • Travel itineraries for people traveling to and from Wuhan have also been widely spread, the report states. This information includes flight and train numbers, dates of travel, as well as personal information including names and ID numbers.
  • A number of the people affected by the leaks have reported being harassed by phone and WeChat by unknown individuals demanding they “immediately isolate” themselves even if they have shown no symptoms after the 14-day incubation period.
  • Many users on Twitter-like microblogging platform Weibo implored others not to spread the personal information any further.

“It is illegal to disclose personal information, which seriously violates our legal rights and threatens our personal safety.” 

—Weibo user Miyanlushe, who studies in Wuhan

Context: Stigma surrounding those from Wuhan has grown as the coronavirus spreads, with villages around China isolating themselves from outside visitors.

  • Since the government locked down Hubei, communities around China have taken matters into their own hands, at times blocking off entrances into their towns to ensure their residents remain uninfected.

Chris Udemans

Christopher Udemans is a Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covers Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, and cybersecurity. You can contact him at chrisudemans [at] technode [dot] com.

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