A sign outside a market in Zhangjiagang banning entry to anyone without a mask on Feb. 4, 2020. (Image credit: TechNode/ Shi Jiayi)

China’s internet regulator has emphasized the need for effective data protection amid the ongoing Covid-19 epidemic as public concern over the misuse of their data grows.

Why it matters: The new flu-like virus has killed 1,367 and infected more than 50,000 people since it was first reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late December.

  • Authorities in some Chinese cities require returning citizens to report their health status daily, generating huge amounts of data.
  • Meanwhile, first-tier metropolises like Shanghai have mandated that travelers fill out their personal information and travel history in an app before arriving in the city to assess whether they require further screening.
  • People returning home from Wuhan have found their personal data circulating in online chat groups after reporting their arrival to local authorities.

Details: The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) said this week that no organizations other than those authorized by the National Health Commission may use Covid-19 as a reason to collect personal data without permission.

  • The notice from the CAC comes amid rising concern over Covid-19 data leaks. People reporting to local authorities following visits to Wuhan have found their personal information, including names, ID numbers, and addresses, circulating in chat groups on popular messaging app WeChat.
  • Those people said they had received threatening phone calls and messages telling them to isolate themselves even if they show no symptoms of the virus after a 14-day incubation period.
  • In its notice, the CAC said that personal information that is gathered to control the epidemic may not be used for other purposes.
  • The notice largely reiterates data protection measures in already existing laws and specifications.
  • Data collection should be limited to people who are suspected of being infected, have already been diagnosed, and those who have had been in close contact with infected individuals.
  • The watchdog said that discrimination based on where someone is from or has been should be prevented.

Context: Stigma surrounding people from the worst-affected areas of China has spread, resulting in whole villages shutting themselves off from outside visitors.

Personal data leaks spread along with coronavirus panic

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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