Coded Social Control: China’s Normalization of Biometric Surveillance in the Post-COVID-19 Era
46 Pages Posted: 16 Nov 2023 Last revised: 29 Nov 2023
Date Written: July 13, 2023
This article investigates the longevity of health QR codes, a digital instrument of pandemic surveillance, in post-COVID China. From 2020 to 2022, China widely used this tri-color tool to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. A commonly held assumption is that health QR codes have become obsolete in post-pandemic China. This study challenges such an assumption. It reveals their persistence and integration - through mobile apps and online platforms - beyond the COVID-19 public health emergency. A prolonged, expanded, and normalized use of tools that were originally intended for contact tracing and pandemic surveillance raises critical legal and ethical concerns. Moreover, their functional transformation from epidemiological risk assessment tools to instruments of behavior modification and social governance heralds the emergence of a Data Leviathan. This transformation is underpinned by a duality of underlying political and commercial forces. These include 1) a structural enabler: a powerful alliance between political authorities and tech giants and 2) an ideological legitimizer: a commitment to collective security over individual autonomy. In contrast to the rights-centric approach embraced by Western democracies to regulate AI-driven biometric surveillance, China adopts a state-industry dominance model of governance.
Keywords: health QR codes, biometric data, artificial intelligence, pandemic, governance, China
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