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Wednesday, 17 October 2018 07:04

Big Brother on Steroids: China's All-Encompassing "Social Credit" System

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1984 1017wrp(Photo: Coastal Elite / Flickr)


What you are about to read is not taken from a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, an edge-of-your-seat Alfred Hitchcock mystery film, or the prescient warnings of George Orwell. The story about how the Chinese government is stage-managing the use of social media makes Orwell's Big Brother almost seem like a down-to-earth guy.

"Imagine a world where many of your daily activities were constantly monitored and evaluated: what you buy at the shops and online; where you are at any given time; who your friends are and how you interact with them; how many hours you spend watching content or playing video games; and what bills and taxes you pay (or not)," Wired UK's Rachel Botsman reported in October of last year. The system takes the consequences of not only all of your activities, but also the activities of people in your network. If your brother is a f**k-up, that's going to be reflected on your score. The data is then analyzed, and given a Citizen Score, which "tells everyone whether or not you are trustworthy," Botsman pointed out.

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In June 2014, the State Council of China published a document called "Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System." As Botsman pointed out, much of the deep information tracking going on in China is not limited to China, as a lot of that "already happens, thanks to all those data-collecting behemoths like Google, Facebook and Instagram or health-tracking apps such as Fitbit." What is new is that these behaviors are then "rated as either positive or negative and distilled into a single number, according to rules set by the government. … [and] your rating would be publicly ranked against that of the entire population and used to determine your eligibility for a mortgage or a job, where your children can go to school - or even just your chances of getting a date."

In October, 2015, the BBC's Celia Hatton reported that the Chinese government's Social Credit System set a 2020 date for the time when "everyone in China will be enrolled" in the national database, a database that "compiles fiscal and government information, including minor traffic violations, and distils it into a single number ranking each citizen."

As Mirjam Meissner, Head of Program Economy and Technology at MERICS (Mercator Institute for China Studies) pointed out in an extensive May 2017, report (.PDF), "At the heart of the Social Credit System lies massive data collection on company activities by government agencies and authorized rating entities." Meissner dryly noted that the system "introduces a novel big data-enabled toolkit for monitoring, rating, and steering the behavior of market participants in a more comprehensive manner than existing credit rating mechanisms."

During a recent interview on NPR's Fresh Air, the authors of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, P.W. Singer, a strategist at New America and a consultant to the U.S. military and intelligence community, and Emerson T. Brooking, who writes about conflict and social media and was recently a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, discussed a number of social media issues, including the Chinese Social Credit System.

Fresh Air's Dave Davies prefaced one of his questions by stating: "You say that the Internet is the most consequential communications development since the invention of the written word, and that it really got supercharged when everything could be done on smartphones. ... [A] lot of people talked about social media as being this powerful, democratizing force. … The trouble is the authoritarian regimes also had access to the tool. How did they strike back?"

P.W. Singer: [Y]ou have this new model that China is presenting which is this almost perverse incentive system - it's called the social credit system - where essentially all your different online activities, everything from what you say to what you buy, can all be monitored and is brought together into a single score of your social trustworthiness. So for example, if you buy diapers, your score goes up because you're a good parent. If you play video games too long, your score goes down because you're screwing around. That score then is used to give you rewards in society, everything from free charges of your smartphone at coffee shops, to negative side. You can't take planes. It's used in job evaluations. It's even used in dating profiles, so it affects how attractive the person you're going to be able to go on dates or even marry.

And what's notable about this - what goes in a way that Orwell never could have imagined is the network side of it. Your score reflects not only what you do but what everyone else in your network does. So if, for example, your brother is not being positive enough about the regime online, your score will go down. So then you'll go to your brother and say, hey, you know, get it together. And this is this strange way of using technology in essence to steer us to a behavior that at least in China the government wants.

Davies: So people who have phones and do a lot of social media will have a social credit score. The aim is so that eventually everyone will get one.

Singer: The goal of it is to achieve what's known as mass control, to steer an entire population towards a certain direction. It's not just the idea that you will have your online activity but that the government will force you to have this kind of Internet presence. For example, there are certain places in China where there are police checkpoints, physical checkpoints where they will check your smartphone to ensure that you have the app that allows monitoring of you.

According to Brooking, this is not a minor phenomenon in China, as to the best of his knowledge, there may be tens of millions of people already being monitored under the social credit standards.

"This is a gradually escalating process with a couple different companies that are doing this piecemeal," Brooking said. "But it's the stated intent of the Chinese Communist Party that this will be a unitary score in place for every Chinese Internet user, of which there are about 800 million, by the year 2020."

Having digested the above, you are probably thinking that in this country as privacy safeguards are being eroded daily, with social media entities capturing boatloads of personal information, and, with media manipulation becoming ever more scientifically targeted, what does it portend for US citizens? Stay tuned.