CBS News on Tuesday reported on China’s plan to assign citizens a “social credit score,” a system that has already restricted the travel privileges of millions of people who were rated poor citizens due to undesirable speech and behavior. The system begins expanding nationwide next week after a limited trial run.
It is daunting to think that a program still in the testing phase, with a nationwide rollout scheduled for next week, is already restricting the movements of some 15 million people.
By 2020, China plans to give all its 1.4. billion citizens a personal score, based on how they behave. Some with low scores are already being punished if they want to travel. Nearly 11 million Chinese can no longer fly and 4 million are barred from trains pic.twitter.com/iFiwQb0RGx
— CBS News (@CBSNews) April 24, 2018
China’s social credit system is not new. The CBS report compares it to the credit ratings familiar to Americans; Breitbart News made the same analogy when reporting on the inception of the program in October 2015.
In fact, as noted in that earlier report, the credit ratings of Chinese citizens are part of the social credit score, but there are many other factors as well: data harvested from social media, performance data from places of employment, “antisocial behaviors,” association with “untrustworthy people,” and speedy compliance with government regulations.
“Antisocial behaviors” known to reduce the social credit score include such malfeasance as smoking in a non-smoking area, loitering at airport check-in counters, playing too many video games, blocking the sidewalk with a bicycle, changing your mind about enlisting in the Chinese military, taking too much space in airline luggage bins, jaywalking, and spreading “fake news.”
As CBS notes, artificial intelligence systems are currently peering at the Chinese through 176 million cameras, and there will be 600 million of them by 2020. Mountains of data are accumulated on every citizen and crunched by computers to generate social ratings.
As noted, the social credit score will have enormous ramifications for Chinese citizens. Low scores land them on no-fly lists, prevent them from purchasing real estate, get them banned from the Internet, or result in public shaming on video billboards.
On the other hand, Chinese citizens with high scores receive special discounts, lower loan interest rates, and weird little perks like extra matches on Chinese dating websites. Ford Motor Company and Chinese web giant Alibaba teamed up to create a “Super Test Drive Center” in the city of Guangzhou that works like a giant vending machine for cars, using a handy smartphone app to schedule free test drives at a completely automated facility — but only for customers with a high social credit score.
People with poor social scores can improve them through “community service and buying Chinese-made products.” At least, those are believed to be effective techniques for pumping up social credit scores. No one is quite certain because some of the rules are secret.
This gives the Chinese Communist Party a convenient Information Age tool for punishing dissent and guaranteeing political purity. Say the wrong thing, and you might just find your social credit score suddenly and mysteriously plummeting. The next thing you know, you cannot buy a plane ticket, you pay twice as much for a car loan, and your favorite dating site tells you to give up on romance and get another cat.
The social credit score is a disturbing story because it is another authoritarian Chinese idea threatening to infect Western politics. The system will immediately begin affecting people outside China’s border as the penalties for low social ratings interfere with family visits, academic activities, and business deals.
Worse, there is significant interest in such a system among the dismaying number of Europeans and Americans with authoritarian inclinations. We are well down the path of believing that social and even legal privileges should be influenced by the political orientation of citizens. Jobs are frequently lost because of tweets, Facebook posts, emails, and leaked internal memos.
“One way to look at the social credit system is not as a perversion of the promise of information technology, but as the logical culmination of the increasing generation and processing of data,” China expert Rogier Creemers proposed in 2015.
Many Westerners learning about China’s social credit system say it sounds like something out of the tech-horror TV series Black Mirror. It is actually the literal plot of one Black Mirror episode, complete with the protagonist acting in a more pleasant and socially responsible manner to improve her social credit rating and obtain better benefits, exactly as Chinese people may now feel obliged to do in the real world.
The major difference is that, in the fictional story, the social ratings were provided by other citizens and compiled in real-time, like a Yelp rating for each and every person. In China, the all-powerful bureaucracy and its A.I. algorithms will compute and adjust the social scores.
Digital Trends warns that Orwellian systems for rating individuals based on their digital identities are already taking shape in the United States, quietly created by giant tech companies and implemented in subtle and secretive ways:
Today, social credit is once again a reality. Everything from the information that we are shown to the prices and opportunities we’re offered are wrapped up in the byzantine way the digital world curates identity. We have easy access to our credit scores, and know the way to improve them. When it comes to the online world, this isn’t nearly so straightforward. Who is gathering data about us, how is it used and what does this mean for the way that we perceive the digital world around us; all of these questions are far from clear.
Projects like China’s Social Credit System should worry people for a number of reasons. But just like the sci-fi dystopias it’s being likened to, it scares us because we innately understand that it’s a world we’re familiar with — only with the volume cranked up to eleven. Don’t for a second think that the impetus driving it isn’t the same one finding its way into every interaction that we have online.
Another early warning sign was the rash of enthusiasm for restricting Second Amendment rights based on government watch lists in 2016. Recent horrific killings led to tough questions for the authorities about why people with disturbing behavior and troubling online activities were not treated as serious threats and monitored more carefully.
Chinese media is bubbling with quotes from people who say the social credit system has already “inspired” them to become better citizens. It will not be long before certain quarters of American political thought argue that we should use advanced data harvesting techniques to inspire people to become better citizens too. If it’s not implemented by a top-down government program as in Beijing, it will come from “socially conscious” Silicon Valley moguls, perhaps as a feature mentioned briefly in Paragraph 37 of their end-user license agreements.