A Citizen Score in China
In a contentious world first, China plans to implement a social credit system (officially referred to as a Social Credit Score or SCS) by 2020. The idea first appeared in a document from the State Council of China published in June 2014. It is a technological advancement so shocking to modern-minded paradigms that many can do little but sit back in defeatist chagrin as science fiction shows us its darker side.
The SCS seems relatively simple. Every citizen in China, which now has numbers swelling to well over 1.3 billion, would be given a score that, as a matter of public record, is available for all to see. This citizen score comes from monitoring an individual's social behavior — from their spending habits and how regularly they pay bills, to their social interactions — and it'll become the basis of that person's trustworthiness, which would also be publicly ranked.
This actually sounds worse than an Orwellian nightmare.
A citizen's score affects their eligibility for a number of services, including the kinds of jobs or mortgages they can get, and it also impacts what schools their children qualify for. In this respect, the SCS resembles one of the most chilling episodes from Black Mirror's third season. Incidentally, the show isn't really known as a "feel-good" flick. It presents various dystopian views of society, but China's SCS proves reality is darker than fiction.
This "service" isn't slated to go full-swing until 2020, but China has already started a voluntary implementation of the SCS by partnering with a number of private companies in order to iron out the algorithmic details needed for such a large-scale, data-driven system.
The companies that are working in this respect include China Rapid Finance, which is a partner of social network giant Tencent, and Sesame Credit, a subsidiary of Alibaba affiliate company Ant Financial Services Group (AFSG). Both Rapid Finance and Sesame Credit have access to intimidating quantities of data, the former through its WeChat messaging app (at present with 850 million active users) and the latter through its AliPay payment service.
According to local media, Tencent's SCS comes with its QQ chat app, where an individual's score comes in a range between 300 and 850 and is broken down into five sub-categories: social connections, consumption behavior, security, wealth, and compliance.
Positive (and Negative) Reinforcement
Proponents of the SCS see this as an opportunity to improve on some of the state's services. Some argue that this would give Chinese citizens much-needed access to financial services. The government also says that this will "allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step," according to The Wall Street Journal. In some situations, this could prove workable. Afterall, finance and loan organizations already detail debtors' credit eligibility if they happen to be in default, preventing them from taking on more debt that they may be unable to pay back.
The utopic goal of managing citizen finances via structural checks and balances feels like an elegant solution to assuage public debt, and will certainly encourage all involved to improve their debt activity. But structural management of personal finances on this all-pervasive level crosses several boundaries.
The major issue is this: the SCS goes well beyond just rating ones ability to manage debt; in essence, it puts a number on a citizen rating their worth as a human being — and it forces others to respect that rating.
"China’s proposed social score is an absolute reaffirmation of China continuing to push forward to be a complete police state," said Anurag Lal, former Director of the U.S. National Broadband Task Force for the FCC under the Obama administration and president and CEO of mobility solutions firm Infinite Convergence, in an email to Futurism. "They take it a step further by becoming not only an establishment of a totalitarian police state that monitors its people but one that completely evades users’ privacy. All forms of activity and interactions, online or otherwise, will be rated, available to view and stored as data."
It seems that the infamous Great Firewall is only the most well-known feature of China's worsening socio-political plight.
Big Data for Good Behavior
More than working as a social enabler, such a system could end up becoming highly restrictive. Speaking to WIRED, Sesame Credit's Technology Director, Li Yingyun, admitted as much, saying that under an SCS system, a person could be judged by his purchases. "Someone who plays video games for ten hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person," Li said. "Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility."
Some see these as positive developments, by virtue of which a person is encouraged to take greater responsibility for their living and spending habits in order to earn a positive citizen score — i.e. become "trustworthy." Chinese blogger Rasul Majid told WIRED that he actually thinks it's a better way of keeping tabs on how the government monitors his data. If one knows how one is surveilled, one knows when and where to clean up one's act.
Lal, however, disagrees: "How do you define people’s behaviors on a day-to-day basis? People do so many different things for so many different reasons, and if the context is not appreciated it can be misconstrued," he said. The words ring true. One does not need to think hard to uncover why it may be problematic to say that people who have children are, in essence, people you should trust. What does this mean for the infertile? What does it mean for same-sex couples? What does it mean for people who simply do not wish to have children?
Probably nothing good.
In the end, even a basic SCS system that only rates a few data points could paint a very inaccurate and incomplete picture of a person. "You may be playing games for 10 hours and if the algorithm says you’re idle, it might miss the reason you’re playing these games. Maybe you’re an engineer and you’re beta testing them. But now you’re automatically designated as an idle person," Lal added. "When in reality, maybe you were just doing your job."
Ultimately, the problem is that "socially acceptable behavior" will be defined by the Chinese government, not a democratic process or an objective panel. And punitive measures will certainly be taken when a person breaks this trust.
With the SCS, the Chinese government will actually hit two birds with one stone: They will have a way of promoting and enforcing what they consider to be "socially acceptable behavior," and they will have a way of monitoring virtually all aspects of citizens' lives.
Lal doesn't believe this setup could fly long term, though. "In the free world, this will never catch on. If they’re naive enough to roll it out, it will harm China’s credibility on a regional and global scale. Tech companies working in China are already frustrated due to the intense restrictions when it comes to tech policies and encryption — this will only add to their frustration."
This system represents something more insidious than the panopticon that renowned social theorist Michel Foucault warned us about. So let's hope that Lal is correct.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to make it clear that Lal is the "former" director under the Obama administration and clarify the nature of the companies collaborating on this endeavour.