Our fast-paced contemporary age has loaded pop culture with every dystopian tale imagination can conjure, from Orwell’s 1984 totalitarian nightmare, to the social credit-obsessed society of Black Mirror’s Nosedive. No longer are these fictional omens of times to come. With a vast Social Credit System scheduled for 2020, China’s government intends to implement a social reality uncannily similar to those of the aforementioned dystopias.
Put in motion in June 2014, the Social Credit System (SSC) will rank the behaviour and trustworthiness of every private and legal entity. According to the wording in the plan released by the government, the system will promote ‘honesty in government affairs’, ensure ‘commercial integrity’ as well as ‘social integrity’, and boost ‘judicial credibility’. The social integrity part may be the most relevant to citizens’ everyday lives and it is certainly this aspect of the plan that is getting the most adverse media coverage.
‘the government will use data-collecting companies to mine information.’
It is unclear who will develop the final version of the credit system but the government awarded some companies licenses to develop prototypes; according to Forbes, these have since been withdrawn due to conflicts of interest and unwillingness to share data with other businesses. One of the recipients was Sesame Credit, run by Ant Financial Services Group. Through their businesses they have access to customer purchases through AliPay; where they hail rides to, and who they go on dates with, in addition to a whole treasure trove of personal details. Their prototype system would rate people not only on their credit score – if they pay bills on time – but also on their behaviour, preferences and who they choose to be friends with. Even though Sesame Credit won’t develop the final version, the government will certainly use data-collecting companies like them to mine information.
It isn’t difficult to imagine the slippery slope we are barreling down on, straight into a world where an algorithm and government-set criteria determine your quality of life. A low social credit score will come with serious penalties like not being able to travel, buy a house, get loans, borrow a car, and find a job. If this sounds like a horror show to you, you may be surprised to learn that millions signed up to Sesame Credit’s trial app in Beijing, and that Shanghai released the ‘Honest Shanghai’ app that uses facial recognition to identify the person being rated. The apps, for now, are voluntary and users lauded them for the perks their good credit score brought, like booking a hotel room without a deposit or having their profiles featured on the dating service Baihe.
We could play devil’s advocate and posit that a world where someone’s trustworthiness is assigned a score would be safer and more efficient. Also, in a society like China where the government already conducts mass surveillance, it may be preferable to have said surveillance be more transparent. However, there is something bone-chilling about the government setting arbitrary guidelines, judging everyone by standards lacking in nuance or exception. Other, more technical concerns abound regarding the system such as the risk of hackers gaining access to the database – if a private company like Equifax cannot be trusted to ensure the safety of customers’ details, would a government do any better?
‘It makes it all the more palatable that the system is structured like any other app we may view as innocuous.’
The social facet has been discussed to the exclusion of the economic part of this plan, which the government claims is just as, if not more, important. China doesn’t have a national credit scoring system, which means obtaining loans suited to consumers’ needs is difficult. Additionally, doing business in China is often dangerous due to high levels of corruption, counterfeit goods, contract defaulting, and a poorly regulated market. The new credit system would help regulate it and ensure a much safer, more predictable and efficient economy. It accomplishes this in the same way as the social credit; companies who abide by rules will benefit from lower taxes and more investment opportunities whilst those with low credit scores will be at a disadvantage. Many outside of, and within China see this as an indispensible step towards fixing a broken system.
It is easy to suggest that market regulation be kept and the rating of private citizens dispensed with, but this would mean disregarding both Chinese state history and the agenda of Xi Jinping himself. The Chinese state and people, although Westernized to an extent, retain certain values, for instance putting the welfare of the group or state before that of the individual. This, coupled with a history of government surveillance leads to a higher tolerance for assaults on personal privacy for the sake of bettering society.
‘It is naïve to think that just because the progress seems slower, that a mass surveillance society cannot be a reality.’
When Xi Jinping rose to power he set out to foster unity in China and strengthen the control of the Communist Party, which was beset by corruption and disloyalty. By many accounts Xi’s mission so far has been a success, but one often bought with the price of rights and freedoms. Through a tough campaign of top-down enforced obedience Xi has demanded loyalty to the Communist Party from the media, jailed critics, suspended social media accounts and cracked down on civil society groups, including charities. An all-encompassing system that streamlines identifying troublemakers, and incentivizes government-sanctioned ‘good’ behaviour is the next logical step in this mission for a ‘united’ country. It makes it all the more palatable that the system is structured like any other app we may view as innocuous – and this leads us away from China.
Surveillance isn’t a problem reserved for totalitarian regimes. We have reached a point where everything from what we purchase on Amazon, to what we like on Facebook and how many steps we’ve taken with Fitbit is collected, sold and analyzed. This analysis is used to create consumer profiles, usually used by companies to target ads. The severe lack of laws and regulations as well as how pervasive all these services have become means that the average consumer has little knowledge about who can see their personal information, let alone the power to control how it is used. It is naïve to think that just because the progress seems slower, that a mass surveillance society cannot be a reality; in fact there is an argument to be made that the incremental chipping away of privacy is more insidious, for it cultivates by degrees the false sense of security required to implement totalitarian surveillance.
It isn’t simply corporations doing this to make a profit. Both the NSA in the United States, as well as the UK government have done much to give themselves unbridled powers of surveillance. The Investigatory Powers Act passed in the UK in 2016 with barely a whisper of protest. According to the Guardian, it provides authorities, law enforcement and security services with unprecedented ‘tools for snooping and hacking’. Edward Snowden has called it ‘the most extreme surveillance in the history of Western democracy’, claiming that ‘it goes further than any autocracies’. This was done under the guise of protection against terrorism but rings just as hollow as Xi Jinping’s call for unity.
The Internet, technology and the information age have brought connection and empowerment to the masses; unless we are careful, our inattention will turn them into tools of oppression.