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Aug. 3, 2020, 2:32 p.m. EDT

The potential abuses of a coronavirus ‘health passport’ are downright frightening

Western countries should resist tracking apps, even in the name of health and safety

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By Jurica Dujmovic, MarketWatch


Everett Collection
Big Brother Is watching, from “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

In 2017, Chinese martial artist Xu Xiaodong, aka “Mad Dog,” became well-known after exposing and defeating several martial-arts “masters” in the ring. His opponents claimed to have supernatural powers, and the fraudulence and hypocrisy were too much for Xu to take.

Afterward, he was accused of denigrating Chinese culture and, as a result, his social-credit rating (SCR) was slashed.

The SCR is an invention of the Chinese Communist Party to keep citizens in check. It rewards obedience and conformity. Xu’s rating was downgraded to a point where he couldn’t rent, own property, stay in certain hotels or travel by train or plane. After so much socio-economic pressure, Xu wound up apologizing to the fraudsters and agreed to pay a hefty fine. Soon enough, the government decided to lift the restrictions.

The Chinese government has made strides with modern technology to assert control — facial-recognition systems, analysis of big data and mandatory mobile apps all play roles in keeping citizens in line and erasing individuality.

The advent of COVID-19 accelerated that trend. An official app assigns a color code to each citizen — red for supervised quarantine, yellow for self-quarantine and green for unrestricted movement. That enables the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to restrict the movement and financial activity of its citizens.

Tracking apps enter the West

Such tracking apps would never take hold in the West, right? Fifteen Western countries, including the U.S., are taking the first step. Where could it lead?

COVI-PASS is a “health passport” developed by a British cyber security company.

Let me know if any of this seems familiar:

“The COVI-PASS ... will work using a color system of green, amber, and red to indicate whether the individual has tested positive or negative for COVID-19 and relevant health information.”

The company says COVI-PASS offers “its own medical certificate” or “third-party medical certificates” issued by so-called authorized health entities.

The idea with these health passports is that the movement and access to services should, in the name of safety, be limited for those the app designates as positive. The app will be given authority to whitelist and blacklist individuals based on “its own medical certificate” data and “third-party medical certificates.”

It is likely that the app will inform bystanders if they’re in a vicinity of someone who is labeled “positive,” so they can avoid or report him or her to the authorities. Needless to say, this individual would be forbidden to leave their home until their status changed and be punished for breaking quarantine.

Medical treatment, other than the one prescribed by the app, could be denied as well (we can’t treat you until you’re “green”). All of this would be based on a promise that the certificate is valid and shows the true state of a person’s health.

Government authority

The next step could be using the same system to track other personal data — a person’s criminal record and social-media profile. And then all the information could be integrated into one online database that contains the entire personal history of every citizen — in the name of safety, of course. Then let’s give the government the authority to do what it wants with that data.

We all know security a loosely defined term. While I’m all for staying healthy and safe, we humans are more than capable of protecting ourselves with the help of existing health-care systems and without the absolute rule of external mechanisms — especially those that could lead to a loss of personal freedom, as is already evident in China.

This crucial first step must be met with resolute resistance, lest it becomes a gateway to something that we, as a society, will no longer be able to defend ourselves from.

If that happens, COVID-19 will be the least of our concerns.

Jurica Dujmovic is a MarketWatch columnist.

Jurica Dujmovic is a business publisher, consultant, designer and gamer.

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