A Chinese app that lets users check their proximity to people infected with coronavirus may be poised to backfire because it’s unreliable and may stigmatize patients, a report says.

The app launched last week with a goal of cutting transmission of the disease, which has killed 1,383 people around the world and sickened more than 14,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease control. The coronavirus, now designated as 2019-nCoV, was first detected in China, and most of the casualties have been in the world’s most populous nation.

Critics say that the technology is only possible because of China’s surveillance state, according to a report in the MIT Technology Review. Users register their phone number, name and identification to sign up for the “close contact detector.” Then they scan a QR code onto their smartphones. The app tells them whether they’ve come into close contact with an infected person. That could be anyone from a stranger on the street to a close relative. If the user is “positive,” the app recommends that he or she self-quarantine and report to local health officials.

But “not everyone who could be capable of exposing you to the disease is actually captured in the database,” Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the publication. That’s because tests are never 100% accurate, particularly for new diseases. So false positives and negatives are a real threat.

Being designated as potentially contagious might create a stigma, the report said. While the subsequent isolation may help limit the transmission of the virus, it can also result in a loss of face and public shaming. And it provides government officials with detailed information on the users, the report said. That’s an issue given that authorities have hunted people from the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak originated, offered bounties and encouraged people to inform on each other, according to a New York Times report.

In countries where data privacy is more of an issue, the app might not have been possible, the MIT report said.

  • The coronavirus is testing the limits of China’s surveillance and censorship infrastructure, Slate reported.
  • China tracked a person infected with the coronavirus across the Chinese city of Nanjing down to the minute with its digital-surveillance apparatus, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.