Where you go, what you buy, who you know, how many points are on your driving licence, how your pupils rate you. These are just a few of the measures which the Chinese government plans to use to give scores to all its citizens.
China’s Social Credit System (SCS) will come up with these ratings by linking up personal data held by banks, e-commerce sites and social media. The scores will serve not just to indicate an individual’s credit risk, but could be used by potential landlords, employers and even romantic partners to gauge an individual’s character.
“It isn’t just about financial creditworthiness,” says Rogier Creemers, who studies Chinese media policy and political change at the University of Oxford. “All that behaviour will be integrated into one comprehensive assessment of you as a person, which will then be used to make you eligible or ineligible for certain jobs, or social services.”
One of the earliest components of the system is called Sesame Credit – a scoring system built and run by Ant Financial, a subsidiary of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. It assigns citizens a score of between 350 and 950 points based on factors such as their financial history. Spending more through Alibaba’s payment app, Alipay, or doing financial transactions involving friends through Sesame Credit, can also raise your score.
The higher your score, the more opportunities it opens up. People with a score of 600 or more can rent cars from the Chinese companies eHai.com and Car Inc, without putting down a deposit. A score higher than 650 lets people check out of hotels faster, while more than 700 earns a reduction in paperwork for visas to Singapore. Aabout achieving high scores.
Sesame Credit is just one step towards the bigger, all-encompassing national system. By 2020 the SCS will take into accounts points on your driver’s license and how you are evaluated in your career as a doctor, lawyer or teacher, says Creemers. “Sesame Credit is one piece in the bigger picture,” says Clement Chen, a privacy law specialist at the University of Hong Kong.
The Chinese government already has a. The site uses data from 37 central government departments and is run with help from Baidu, China’s main search engine. Any court judgements and other interactions with the state are listed. Its functionality will be ramped up over the coming years and will presumably be linked with a version of Sesame Credit as the 2020 deadline approaches.
The real threat will arise when the government collates myriad other sources, painting a complete picture of its citizens in data, says Chen. “It aims to collect nearly every aspect about citizens and integrate it into a mega platform, so this information can be shared between public bodies.”
Unsurprisingly, Sesame Credit has received some. Articles that Sesame Credit would take the behaviour of people’s friends into account when determining their score, and that it would monitor .
In a statement sent to New Scientist, Ant Financial refutes some of these claims. “Materials published on social media platforms do not affect our users’ personal Sesame Credit score,” the company said. Chen says he is not aware of any part of the system that judges individuals based on the behaviour of their friends.
Creemers, who translated publicly released Chinese government documents detailing SCS into English, says the panic around his work is typical of Western media’s coverage of China. “Pretty muchmakes people panicked,” says Creemers. “And many times we don’t recognise that we are doing similar things.”
For starters, people in the West, but by corporations seeking profits. Of course, that doesn’t mean China’s intent to monitor and score its populace isn’t worrying.
Alibaba’s Sesame Credit and similar systems built by Chinese tech companies certainly match the requirements outlined by the government for SCS, but the link between what the government wants and what these companies are doing is never explicit, Creemers says.
And Sesame Credit is open about its links with the Chinese government. “Sesame Credit works closely with the Ministry of Public Security, the Supreme People’s Court, the Ministry of Education and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce to collect data,” an Ant Financial spokesperson said.
Unique IDs for monitoring
Construction of the SCS is already well under way. In June this year, the government announced that every organisation in China – companies, NGOs and government bodies – would be given a unique identification number to facilitate the.
Chen says that the “megasystem” is designed to limit a wide range of risks, not just financial ones: “non-compliance with contracts, insincerity in selling goods, or failing to comply with safety standards during the production of drugs or the construction of a bridge” are examples. “It covers business actors, as well as individuals.
“I am curious about how serious the government is about scoring food and drug safety,” he adds. “That could be a part that most of the Chinese public would say yes to.”
He says the scoring and monitoring of businesses is welcome, but that applying the same level of surveillance to individuals is worrying. “One might think of it as a mega surveillance system, as almost every aspect of citizens’ lives can be interpreted,” he says.
Christo Wilson, a computer scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, suggests that SCS may spawn a kind of black market in which people can pay for fake online profile details which will boost their scores, much like existing grey areas in which social network followers can be “bought” and Likes on posts can be paid for.
“The more important you make that number, the more people are going to try to manipulate it, and the more data you include, the easier it becomes to manipulate it,” he says. “Affixing that kind of value to social information, the black market is going to go crazy.”
(Image credit: Ian Berry/Magnum)
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