China’s President Xi Jinping has called for a “global mechanism” that would use QR codes to open up international travel and easily track the health status of travellers which could help combat Covid-19.
“We need to further harmonise policies and standards and establish ‘fast tracks’ to facilitate the orderly flow of people,” he said. The QR codes will be used to help establish a traveller’s health status at hand.
However, despite the idea of having some merit to it, it also poses a high cybersecurity risk more especially when it comes to political monitoring according to some human rights advocates.
Human Rights advocates further warn that the QR codes could be used for “broader political monitoring and exclusion”. The codes also prove a risk when it comes to privacy concerns.
Mr Xi presented the QR code idea while at the G20 summit, an online meeting of heads of state from the world’s 20 largest economies, which was hosted by Saudi Arabia over the weekend.
He said the codes could be used to recognise “health certificates based on nucleic acid test results”, according to a transcript published by Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
Mr Xi didn’t go into further detail about how the travel scheme might work, or how closely it would be modelled on China’s QR code apps, which have been used to help contain the virus on the mainland.
“We hope more countries will join this mechanism,” he added.
QR codes are bar codes that can be read by mobile phones. Under the scheme China has employed since February, users are issued a traffic-light style health code, with a green code allowing someone to travel freely, and an orange or red code indicating that they need to quarantine for up to two weeks.
The codes are based on a combination of big data and information submitted by the users themselves. The technology was developed by financial technology giant Ant Financial, and is available through its main app Alipay, but also on WeChat, which belongs to Alipay’s competitor Tencent.
President Xi Jinping presents QR code travel-based system idea at G20 summit
During the online summit, Mr Xi also called for the re-opening of the global economy, including restoring “global and industrial supply chains” and the “liberalisation of trade of key medical supplies” so as to help economies regain footing in the current pandemic situation.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a lot of problems for many countries, making it difficult to re-open borders and other essential services that contribute greatly to the global economy such as trade imports and exports.
Air travel is also still restricted in many parts of the world, which has continued to pose a challenge for most countries since the disease has spiked in some regions forcing authorities to set up more travel restrictions to combat spread.
A travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong, for example, was postponed shortly before it was due to start this weekend due to a sudden spike in cases in Hong Kong.
In a tweet, the executive director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth expressed caution over Mr Xi’s proposal.
“An initial focus on health could easily become a Trojan Horse for broader political monitoring and exclusion,” he said.
The city of Hangzhou has said it plans to make a permanent version of the QR code-based software, which would be used to assign citizens a personal score based on their medical history, health check-ups and lifestyle habits.
QR codes have been used differently elsewhere. In Singapore and Australia, for example, they’re used for contract tracing, with residents using them to check into and out of places they visit, including malls, restaurants and their places of work.
Author: Allan Bangirana
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