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WeChat, Alipay deny helping government identify 350,000 users who visited Beijing food market

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated China’s collection of big data, especially for contact tracing.

Photo: Stock.tuchong.com

Chinese digital payment apps WeChat Pay and Alipay have both denied a claim circulating online that they had provided the government with the user data of 350,000 people who had been to Beijing’s Xinfadi wholesale food market, the center of the latest coronavirus outbreak in the country.

In nearly identical statements on microblogging site Weibo, the apps shared screenshots of posts stating that they had helped authorities identify people who had visited the market.

“Alipay and WeChat have done [the country] a great service by quickly identifying 350,000 people,” the posts said, according to the screenshots. “There have been no cash transactions at the market since the start of the epidemic, so Alipay and WeChat were able to easily confirm the people affected, who are all being screened for the virus now.”

As of Monday morning, the original posts could not be found on Weibo.

“Alipay has not provided the data mentioned in the screenshot below,” the digital payments app operated by Ant Financial Services Group, an affiliate of the South China Morning Post’s parent company Alibaba Group Holding, wrote in a post on Sunday night. “For information about the epidemic situation, please refer to the official announcements of the health and epidemic prevention authorities.”

“WeChat has never provided the data mentioned in the screenshot below,” Tencent Holdings’ ubiquitous app posted about an hour after. “Please do not believe and circulate rumors, and check the official information release channel of the health and epidemic prevention authorities.”

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated China’s collection of big data, especially for contact tracing. As part of a nationwide initiative, authorities have collected personal data of citizens, including their location data and self-reported medical history, and assigned them colored QR health codes to determine whether they have to be quarantined.

As China’s top mobile payment apps, Alipay and WeChat have faced scrutiny about their data privacy policies, especially as they expand beyond China. Both support China’s health code system, which has drawn concerns of mislabeling and privacy leaks.

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In response to separate queries, Ant Financial Services Group and WeChat both said they had no further comment beyond their statements on Weibo.

A rush of coronavirus cases of unknown origin linked to the Beijing market over the weekend pushed new cases in the country to a two-month high, coming as a shock to many after new domestic infections reported in the country had dropped to almost zero.

The Beijing government has asked people who have been to the market over the past 14 days to stay at home. On Sunday, samples from 76,499 people were tested, with 59 returning positive results, according to Beijing Health Commission spokesman Xia Xiaojun.

This article was originally published in the South China Morning Post.