Blog Post 2: Surveillance and China’s Social Credit System

The Black Mirror episode, “Nosedive” premiered on Netflix in October 2016. With Bryce Dallas Howard as the lead, Lacie, the episode is set in a world where people can rate one another. These ratings effect where Lacie can live, her transportation and how others around her choose to interact with her. Her obsession to get a perfect rating makes her end up in jail, with an extremely low rating, screaming profanities at a man in a cell across from her, no longer caring about the rating.

What if I told you there is a country that has a system eerily similar to the one in “Nosedive”? Well, there is.

The Chinese government is developing at Social Credit System, described as a “national reputation system,” which is intended to be in full swing by next year.

The system is coordinated by the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, a policy building body set up under Communist China. Multiple firms, including Alibaba Group, Tencent, transportation networks and dating services, began working to create the system with the People’s Bank of China in 2015.

The government has already started deducting credit points from the people, starting with Sesame Credit in 2015, which deducted points from people who defaulted in court fines.

In February 2018, the Social Credit System reached a new high (or low, depending) in Shanghai using the Honest Shanghai app, which uses facial recognition to browse government records and then rate users.

A month later, millions of citizens were blacklisted from flights and train trips due to their credit score, just like Lacie was in “Nosedive.” Implementation plans for the system also include publicly disclosing “untrustworthiness” ratings.

So, the Chinese government and several private firms are collecting citizen data through automated algorithms to keep tabs on the population. Data that the government and firms can track include location, friends, health records, insurance, private messages, financial position, shopping history, dating behavior and more.

With this data, they are able to have more control over the masses. Fining people becomes easier, thus giving the government and firms more money. This surveillance seems to cover every Chinese citizen, but that seems difficult to find out. Are government officials and the CEOs of the firms tracked down? Maybe. If they are, will they be affected just like any other Chinese citizen? It’s hard to say when so much of this data collecting isn’t transparent with the public.

Full implementation of the plan includes rewards/punishments for the people based on their score. By the end of 2018, 17.5 million flights had been denied to travelers, but the reasons for their placement on the blacklist is unknown.

Another punishment is placed on children. If their parents have low scores, it can effect where they go to school.

The biggest Chinese dating site, Baihe, allows its users to post their scores. Now, one’s score can really effect one’s social life.

Religious rights (well, rights in the US) are taken away from those in China. Those who report Muslims to officials are rewarded, whereas those practicing are punished. The same goes to those who practice Falun Gong, forcing practitioners to renounce their religious beliefs.

Rewards include easier access to loans and jobs and faster internet speed, whereas punishments are the opposite. The system has also been used to prevent people from rent hotel rooms and using credit cards. Even excessive gaming reduces one’s score.

I personally don’t believe this type of surveillance is necessary, at least not to effect people personally. If it was only used on business, I think I could get behind it. Laws are in place already in China and elsewhere to reward and punish people for social activity, why perpetuate it further? What affect does buying and online gaming habits have on the wider community? There is no reason to punish people further. It only causes a greater distrust between the people and the government. In my opinion, it’s like the Chinese government is purposely trying to get citizens to revolt. With so much cause for distrust and hate, the Chinese government is currently the equivalent of someone who has “kick me” written on their back.

In Szymielewicz’s article on Quartz, what big data collectors know about US citizens through social profiling is described. Luckily, in the US there are apps that can provide us with a bit more protection than usual.

Encrypted messaging apps like Signal and Telegram can be used to keep our conversations private. One has to be careful, though, as popular messaging apps, such as WhatsApp are owned by Facebook. So, one has to check who owns the app and look at their privacy policies.

To prevent online tracking, apps like Privacy Badger and NoScript block ads and third-party trackers.

Though there are several apps that can claim that your information will be kept private, the most important thing people can do in the face of big data companies and government surveillance is to talk about it. Europe, as mentioned in the Quartz article, is already making strides for more transparency between big data collectors and consumers. There’s no reason we can’t do the same in the US and other countries, such as China.

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