Beijing district officials confirmed that they are using data from mobile phone carriers to track individual movement during the city’s renewed Covid-19 outbreak, according to Xinhua News (in Chinese). Daxing District authorities told the official news agency they used location-based data to track visitors to the Xinfadi market, the outbreak’s epicenter.

Why it matters: Mobile carrier data has been used to generate individual reports of cities visited since early in the response. But this is the first time we’ve seen it used to track where people go inside a city.

Details: Based on reporting from two different outlets’, it appears that Beijing districts are relying on telecoms data to investigate connections to Xinfadi.

  • According to Xinhua News, on June 15 and 16, Daxing District officials worked with China’s three largest telecom operators to check on residents who passed through Xinfadi after May 30.
  • Daxing residents received texts and calls asking about their visit.
  • 8 a.m. Health News” (in Chinese) reported a similar process for Chaoyang District residents.

Not perfect: There’s a reason cell phone data hasn’t been used before: it’s not very accurate.

  • The use of big data didn’t guarantee precision: Xinhua reports that people who had taken subways past the area of the market were swept up in the search. The report quotes one perplexed resident wondering if she was the victim of a phone scam when she was called for a screening test.
  • 8 a.m. Health also reports that people who drove by Xinfadi market without stopping were called for screening tests. The story’s author received a call on June 16, despite never having stepped into Xinfadi.
  • Though called in for nucleic acid testing, the author seems to have escaped home isolation, but at least one other person he talked to was told to quarantine while waiting for test results.
  • Still, Beijing’s response is a lot more targeted than the response to a May 2020 coronavirus resurgence in Wuhan, during which authorities tested nearly all 11 million residents of the city.
  • “As long as you’ve passed through the vicinity of Xinfadi, and stopped, made a phone call, or opened an app, you’ll be captured and recorded by big data,” the author of the 8 a.m. Health article was told on a call. “You should be mentally prepared, you might need to undergo home isolation for 14 days.”
  • It’s not clear what the caller meant by “big data.”

What data? On official social media accounts, Alibaba and Tencent denied rumors that their mobile payment data was part of the tracking effort.

  • Amid ambiguity about data collection, a rumor suggested that Alipay and WeChat had been used to identify 350,000 visitors to Xinfadi market.
  • The use of telecoms data itself isn’t new. TechNode contributor Dev Lewis, who follows the development of China’s health code system, noted that it’s been part of public data collection since early on.
  • China’s national health code standards, released on April 29, also explicitly state that telecoms data is one of the things used to determine users’ location.

Context: Though Beijing is under significant movement restrictions, it’s not facing the full-blown lockdown that it went through in February.

  • TechNode editor David Cohen found that Beijing residents are treated differently depending on home residence community (shequ), even in Shanghai.
  • He and another source who have been to low-risk parts of Beijing still have green health codes in the national and Shanghai systems.
  • According to CCTV (in Chinese), the new outbreak was detected without high tech monitoring: the first confirmed case was a Mr. Tang from Xicheng District, who cycled to hospital on noticing his symptoms, then wowed netizens by supposedly flawlessly recalling all 38 people he’d interacted with in the past two weeks.
  • Mr. Tang’s alertness, combined with Beijing’s prompt measures, might be just enough to prevent further spread. Chinese epidemiologist Wu Zunyou expressed on June 18 that the epidemic was “under control” (in Chinese), but that Beijing residents couldn’t afford to be complacent.

Shaun Ee

Shaun Ee is a Yenching Scholar working at the intersection of geopolitics, tech, and national security. Before moving to Beijing, he was assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft...