Scientificity and seriousness of health code must be maintained: Global Times editorial
Published: Jun 14, 2022 08:35 PM
Residents and couriers entering a compound scan a health code on May 30 in Beijing. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Residents and couriers entering a compound scan a health code on May 30 in Beijing. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Several posts on Chinese social media revealed Monday that many who had problem withdrawing money from local banks couldn't make their planned trip to Zhengzhou, Central China's Henan Province, to report this issue because their health codes had turned red. This incident quickly aroused public concern.

In response, Zhengzhou's government service hotline 12345 claimed they had received calls regarding this problem. It said they were unfamiliar with the situation but could confirm it was related to a problem in the big data database. "We are proactively solving this issue," the hotline's operators said. Regarding whether the issue is related to the epidemic prevention rules, the hotline operator said that they had not received such notification. In addition, Zhengzhou's health hotline 12320 said it was unclear which government branch had given these people red codes.

However, these replies are apparently not enough to quell doubts. According to   information spread online, it seems that the "red codes" were "precisely" given to those bank deposit holders. Some of these people told the media that after they scanned the health code to fill in their personal information, their code appeared red and the reason given was that "they needed to sit in quarantine". But those non-bank deposit holders who took the same trip to Zhengzhou didn't encounter the same problem. In addition, according to media reports, several depositors who didn't go to Zhengzhou were also given red codes after filling out their information.

To know the truth requires a more in-depth investigation and a more authoritative answer. The health code is a technical means designed to make the public compromise some personal information rights to comply with the needs of society's public health security. It can only be used for epidemic prevention purposes. It is the responsibility of the relevant authorities to protect the privacy of citizens to the greatest extent during the epidemic prevention process. If speculation of the abuse of the power to misuse the health code is allowed to circulate on the internet, it will generate damage to the government's credibility. Whether the situation circulated on the internet is in line with the facts, it is necessary for the local authority to give a convincing response.

Misuse of health code-related information is not a trivial matter. If someone tries to use the health code for purposes other than epidemic prevention, this kind of behavior is not only against social morality, but also suspected of violating the law or regulation. As to how personal privacy is protected, there are clear specifications in the series of national standards for personal health information code issued by the State Administration for Market Regulation -- that is, the collection, processing and utilization of personal health information should comply with the national standard "Information security technology - Personal information (PI) security specification," and the latter clarifies that the PI controllers shall establish a minimum access control policy for the personnel with authorized access to PI, so that they could only access minimized PI necessitated by their duties and have minimized data operation authorization to fulfill their duties.

There is a high degree of consensus throughout society that health code information should never be misappropriated. In fact, the vast majority of the country is becoming more and more cautious in protecting privacy when it comes to handling relevant information. For example, when announcing the epidemiological investigations recently, many places have avoided disclosing information that is not related to epidemic prevention. It is because of this strong consensus that people are sensitive to any hint of a breach of this bottom line, and no one should take a chance that they can cheat the public on this issue. 

The role of the health code in the regular epidemic prevention and control is so pivotal that its scientific nature and seriousness must be maintained. Some grassroots disputes or "technical errors" must not be allowed to affect public confidence and the overall situation in the fight against the epidemic. The relevant departments in Zhengzhou should conduct prudent and strict investigation and verification. The process should be expedited as much as possible. If this is caused by technical problems, a complete and convincing chain of evidence must be presented; if there is indeed regulation-violation in the process, they must be corrected as soon as possible.