tech

China to track coronavirus with QR codes, national tech firms to help

Alipay, the payment app operated by Alibaba’s financial division Ant Financial, released a feature in collaboration with the government that assigns a coloured QR code representing the health of residents in Hangzhou.

A security guard takes the temperature of a man wearing a protective mask at an entrance to a fresh produce market in Shanghai.
A security guard takes the temperature of a man wearing a protective mask at an entrance to a fresh produce market in Shanghai. (Bloomberg)

China's government is enlisting the help of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and Tencent Holdings Ltd to expand colour-based systems for tracking individuals affected with the coronavirus nationwide.

On Wednesday, Alipay, the payment app operated by Alibaba's financial division Ant Financial, released a feature in collaboration with the government that assigns a coloured QR code representing the health of residents in Hangzhou.

Users in the city fill out an online form reporting their ID number, whether they have travelled outside Hangzhou recently, and any symptoms they might have that suggest an illness, such as fever or a heavy cough.

After filling out the questionnaire, users receive a colour-based QR-code, a type of barcode, on their mobile phones indicating their health status.

Users with a red code are instructed to remain quarantined for 14 days and provide regular check-ins via DingTalk, a workplace chat app also run by Alibaba.

Users with a yellow code are instructed to stay inside for 7 days, while users with a green code may travel freely.

State media reports describe the system as a tool to be deployed at travel checkpoints, such as train stations or highways. It's also being used at the neighbourhood level.

Two Hangzhou residents told Reuters that their apartment complexes have asked to view their QR codes as they enter the building. Another Hangzhou resident told Reuters that she was asked to show her QR code before entering the local supermarket.

On Sunday, Alipay announced it is working with the government to take the service nationwide.

Tencent, makers of the popular messaging app WeChat, announced a similar QR-code based tracking feature on Saturday, in collaboration with a division of China's National Development and Reform Council (NDRC).

In a social media post published Saturday, the company said the system is currently in use in the southern city of Shenzhen and will soon be deployed across the greater Guangdong province.

The measures come as the Chinese government takes unprecedented measures to control the movement of people to curb the spread of the virus.

Localities are increasingly relying on neighbourhood committees, often at the level of residential compounds, to track infections.

Enforcement has been patchy and inconsistent - some buildings will prevent individuals from outside cities from entering, others prevent all non-residents from entering.

Local security guards often record an entrant's temperature using a pen and paper.