In China’s latest bid to stop a new deadly virus from spreading, authorities are turning to sophisticated surveillance state tactics to enforce quarantines.
At least 60 million people in central China have been in a government-ordered lockdown since Jan. 23 as health officials scramble to contain a growing global health emergency. In China, those who choose to break quarantine orders are being caught and scolded not by a police officer, but by a drone.
Videos released by Chinese state media outlets show police-operated drones confronting citizens in public, warning them to take better precautions against the virus.
In one video, the aircraft hovers near an elderly woman and addresses her through a loudspeaker, telling her she needs to wear a breathing mask for protection.
“Yes auntie, this drone is speaking to you,” the voice says, according to translation in a report by China’s state-owned Global Times.
“You shouldn’t walk about without wearing a mask. You’d better go home, and don’t forget to wash your hands.”
The woman looks at the drone, wide-eyed, and scurries off.
In another video, shared on Twitter by Chinese state news agency Xinhua, a drone appears to approach an elderly couple on the street and urges them to “have better self-protection.”
“Return home immediately,” the official tells them through the speaker.
The tactic is even being used to break up social gatherings. In another clip, taken from Chinese social media platform Weibo by Reuters and shared widely online, a drone is used by police to advise a group of people playing mahjong to do so indoors.
“Playing mahjong outside is banned during the epidemic. You have been spotted,” authorities tell the group through the drone’s loudspeaker. “Stop playing and leave the site as soon as possible.”
To date, the new coronavirus has infected more than 43,000 people and killed at least 1,000, with 99 per cent of the cases found in China. The influenza-like illness — which has been named COVID-19, the World Health Organization announced on Tuesday — has been reported in two dozen other countries, with one death in the Philippines.
China has struggled to contain the virus but, with one of the world’s most sophisticated systems of electronic surveillance, the health emergency has given authorities new reasons for new methods of control.
Drones are just the tip of the iceberg.
A number of Chinese mobile apps can now tell users if they’ve been on a flight or public transportation with a COVID-19 patient. Other apps use digital maps to show users buildings where infected people live. New systems from top-tier Chinese tech firms require passengers to provide personal information before taking buses, trains or taxis. The data collection is intended to build a trip history for each citizen and monitor those who might have been in contact with COVID-19 patients.
But, with millions of people wearing surgical masks, identifying a confirmed or suspected patient using China’s vast network of facial recognition technology isn’t as easy as it once was. A number of artificial intelligence companies are looking at ways to detect fevers and symptoms without a face identification.
One leading artificial intelligence firm has built a system that can be installed at building entrances and can identify people wearing masks using infrared cameras to detect temperatures. A fever is a key symptom of the new virus.
President Xi Jinping recently called for “greater legislative, law enforcement, judicial and law observance efforts to strengthen the capacity to carry out law-based infection prevention and control.”
He told top officials that epidemic control laws should be “strictly enforced.”
In Chinese provinces with confirmed virus cases, the enforcement is already well underway.
Citizens are being investigated and accused of “endangering public safety” by breaching quarantine or concealing travel history. In the most extreme case, authorities in the province of Heilongjiang have warned citizens could face the death penalty for deliberately spreading the virus by being out in public. In one county in Hebei, authorities are allegedly offering people bounties of 1,000 yan ($140) to tell on neighbours who have recently arrived from Wuhan.
The Chinese government’s handling of the crisis, however, has been criticized since the outbreak began. The death of a young doctor from the virus who had earlier been threatened by police for warning people online about the illness only fanned the flames of public outrage over the crisis.
— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press