In Brief
  • The dystopian state is closer than you think—China's new "social credit score" is every Orwellian paranoiac's worst nightmare come true.
  • But the technology, like it or not, is well on its way to implementation. The only question is—how will it change our lives?

Big Brother State

The Chinese government is taking a controversial step in security, with plans to implement a system that gives and collects financial, social, political, and legal credit ratings of citizens into a social credit score. The idea itself seems straight out of science fiction, but in a society like China’s, it’s already beginning to take shape.

For a nation that has a more-or-less openly totalitarian approach to governance, a move to install a Big Brother social credit system shouldn’t be surprising. Proponents of the idea are already testing various aspects of the system — gathering digital records of citizens, specifically financial behavior. These will then be used to create a social credit score system, which will determine if a citizen can avail themselves of certain services based on his or her social credit rating.

“China has a long way to go before it actually assigns everyone a score. If it wants to do that, it needs to work on the accuracy of the data. At the moment it’s ‘garbage in, garbage out,’” explained Wang Zhicheng of Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management.

Taking a Cue From Science Fiction

If China successfully consolidates data from around 1.4 billion people into one system, then it’s more than likely that this social credit system will be put in place. Once it does, it’s going to be like an episode from Black Mirror — the social credit score of citizens will be the basis for access to services ranging from travel and education to loans and insurance coverage.

Credits: David Dettmann/Netflix
Credits: David Dettmann/Netflix

Of course, supporters of this system have their reasons, including developing a unitary system for granting citizen’s access to financial services, given that 1.3 billion Chinese don’t own a credit card. Besides, the government assures that the system would “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step,” as The Wall Street Journal reports. Which would never work in the United States — Washington, D.C., for instance, would become a ghost town.

But perhaps, in a country where even Facebook is largely censored and internet access is still limited to what the government allows, a social credit scoring system would be less beneficial than it would seem. Certainly, it would grant the government more access and control over the lives of its citizens. And, if that episode from Black Mirror is to be believed, it’s a system that can do more damage than good.