China's social credit system, china, social credit, big data

Is China’s creepy social credit system much closer to home than we think?

China’s creepy social credit system is a dystopian high-tech model of big brother when power goes unchecked.

Here’s how it works. So currently, most Chinese citizens don’t have credit scores, unlike in the UK, where they have been part of the consumer landscape for decades, led by the big credit bureaus such as Equifax and Experian.

The Chinese government aims to fix that and fast, establishing a nationwide credit scoring system, known as the Social Credit System (SCS), by 2020.

Under the system, the Chinese authorities plan to do more than gauge people’s finances; they want to rate the trustworthiness of citizens in all facets of life, from business deals to social behavior.

So for example, an individual who is deemed to be spending too long playing computer games or is caught crossing the road at the wrong time, would receive a low social credit score.

Refusing to join the Chinese military, spreading whatever the Chinese government deems to be “fake news” and standing for too long at check-in desks or at the airport could also result in punishment.

People may also receive penalties for taking up too much space in airplane seats and luggage racks, smoking in the wrong places, using your phones at the wrong time or doing anything else which the government disapproves of.

Those with low scores would be banned from travelling, their children would be refused entry into the best schools and they would not be able to obtain good rates on their mortgages or finances.

Citizens with low scores could also lose out on jobs, or be publicly shamed. Like many Asian countries, ‘losing face’ or being embarrassed in front of other people is a deep source of shame, which can result in others losing respect for you.

Those with low scores could also be prevented from taking the train and having their internet speeds cut.

A 2014 planning document in the country stated that “a social credit system is an important component part of the Socialist market economy system” and that “its inherent requirements are establishing the idea of an sincerity culture, and carrying forward sincerity and traditional virtues.”

The ultimate goal is to hammer into citizens the idea that “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful,” the Chinese government has said. Good scores get rewarded, and bad ones are punished.

Major tech firms in the company such as Baidu, the country’s largest search engine and Alibaba, China’s biggest e-commerce site have played a key role in harvesting user data and providing information on internet users to the government.

Everything Chinese citizens do, especially online, may be incorporated into their scores and a government website will allow you to look up the scores of other people.

Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, has integrated its scores into Baihe, a major dating site. Baihe users can choose to display their scores in return for more prominent placement in search results.

The social credit system has already been trialled in parts of the country and will soon be mandatory for all citizens.

Some citizens claim their fear of receiving a low score has “improved” their behaviour already.

Mu Linming, a 62-year-old resident of Daxunjiangjia village who has trialled the scheme, said: “Life in our village has always been good. After introducing the system, it’s gotten even better. We are all good, and we can all encourage bad people to be good.”

china credit score

Are we following in China’s footsteps?

Many of us will undoubtedly look at this social credit system with horror and dismay.

But is it really so different from what we have in the West?

Ok, so right now we do not have overt control where we are penalised for innocuous and harmless activities that we do online.

facebook, cambridge analytica

But if the Facebook data scandal is anything to go by, it is clear that our data is being used in many ways that we cannot anticipate.

We have learned not to question systems such as credit scoring from companies such as Experian and Equifax that collect our data and give us a rating based upon it.

Having a poor credit record can prevent you from getting loans, mortgages and in some cases even jobs.

Some technocrats in the US and UK have even suggested that this should be taken even further and so therefore have promoted a “rateocracy”, which is a mass system of public reputation assessment that no one can opt out of.

Some businesses have also created systems whereby your behaviour online should also be taken into account when deciding your credit worthiness, even if that behaviour has nothing to do with finance.

For example, some creditors, for instance, take into account how adept borrowers are at filling out online forms. As the CEO of one such startup told the New York Times, “We feel like all data is credit data, we just don’t know how to use it yet.”

This underlines the problem of outsourcing the potential trustworthiness of citizens using data algorithms.

Indeed, it is often the case that many of the big credit providers cannot be trusted themselves. Experian for example, has been caught selling consumer data to identity thieves. Those with a poor credit score often find themselves being unable to challenge the findings of credit checking companies like Experian.

But it doesn’t end there.

In Britain the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 – which has also been dubbed the Snooper’s Charter – proposed to collect the phone calls, emails and online website activity of all consumers and distribute them to a large number of public bodies and organisations with no oversight whatsoever.

This combined with the public scandals and data leaks from various institutions including the government sets us on a very slippery slope indeed whereby it is not difficult to imagine a Chinese-style digital dictatorship much closer to home.

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