News & Analysis

China’s Social Credit System: The Dangers of Big Data

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The Chinese state wants to control its citizens via a system of social scoring that punishes behavior it doesn’t approve of. Image Credit: Telecoms

Society is currently undergoing a paradigm shift involving technology. Within the last decade, corporations and individuals have begun utilizing the vast technological achievements of the 20th century to connect previously isolated populations and further blur the line between the physical and digital worlds – propelling humanity into the 4th Industrial Revolution. And while this period of rapid expansion and globalization is occuring, the world is seemingly shrinking to within the confines of a 5 inch screen.  This “Revolution” is profoundly different from the preceding three, because of its focus on the implementation of rather than the creation of new technology; exemplified by the developments in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and blockchain.

With these advancements comes a heightened degree of responsibility for international government organizations, local governments and corporations to protect citizens. The United Nations issued the Principles on Personal Data Protection and Privacy on October 11, 2018 to provide member nations a framework for personal data protection and to extend respect for human rights across the internet. Ms. Navi Pillay, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a February 2014 statement that “new technologies are vulnerable to mass electronic surveillance and interception that threatens individual rights – including [rights] to privacy and to freedom of expression and association.” Despite optimistic developments on privacy rights, some nations are still deploying their own divergent path towards the internet; but then there are some implementing policies straight out of a science fiction film.

Imagine a world where every small fault, no matter how minuscule, was quantified and magnified, blocking you from typical “luxuries” such as a train ticket or a premium condo. In Netflix’s hit show Black Mirror, Lacie Pound is caught in a dilemma, her rating is only a 4.2 out of 5. She is unable to rent her dream condo and her higher rated friends look down upon her. In this dystopia, citizens can use their smartphones to rate their fellow citizens with one to five stars, which impacts their socioeconomic status. All interactions between the characters become “fake” as they are solely worried about their rating.

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Black Mirror’s Nosedive rating system could will be a reality for millions, possibly (Picture: Netflix)

Seemingly inspired by this episode, the China State Council announced on June 14, 2014 that by 2020 they would institute a complete rating system to increase trustworthiness and transparency in the economy. The episode’s parallels to China’s new policy are so apparent that Charlie Brooker, the show’s creator, said in an interview with The Daily Beast,“I promise you we didn’t sell the idea to the Chinese government!  That was not our intention. It was quite trippy.”

Similarly, to Black Mirror, a citizen’s rating, or score, is based on their contributions to society and the Chinese economy. If you assist an elderly person or purchase Chinese-made goods, your score could increase; but if you commit a crime or speak out against the government, your score could diminish and prompt harsh consequences, such as preventing you from buying a plane ticket or slowing down your internet speed. The system is currently being piloted in rural towns like Rongcheng where Vice Media recently did an interview with Zhou Aini, an information collector for the program, and the town’s citizens. In one scene of the feature, the citizens lined up in a banquet hall to donate towards an unknown cause in return for an increase in their score. One citizen named Jung that self-admittedly keeps close track of his score said, “Why would I know where my money is going?” The system has been criticized for financially benefiting the Chinese government and Communist Party by collecting donations such as these. That being said, the system has seen some positive results says Wang Fengbo, the Director Social Credit System: “Now in our community, neighbors get along very well. There are no fights.”

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Cities running social credit pilots (Image Credit: MERICS)

The most concerning element of the system is China’s plans to increase statewide surveillance through CCTV cameras that will use geo-tracking, facial recognition and body scanning to monitor their citizens and judge their actions. They also intend on using smartphone apps to collect personal data and track online purchases. All of this data will be combined into a massive database that private corporations closely tied to the Chinese government will have access to; the most notable one being the Alibaba Group, who recently started their own rating system called the Zhima Credit (i.e. Sesame Credit). Both systems are in direct violation of the UN’s recent application of human rights toward the internet by threatening privacy and free speech. Technology has a great potential to spread democratic values, such as freedom of speech, press, and assembly; but it also can be abused by untrustworthy nations.

The rise of big data is not limited to just China, unsurprisingly. Recent domestic scandals, such as Facebook’s data sharing scandal, when Cambridge Analytica and 40 other firms were given and abused access to sensitive user data, highlight the global nature of this immense issue. As new technologies like artificial intelligence and nanotechnology are adapted to infrastructure and web technologies, every person’s actions are in some way monitored and collected. Because of this, the government must revise its policies on online privacy and data sharing.

Today marks the 28th day of the government shutdown that began amid the transition into the 115th Congress. Both sides of the political spectrum are to blame for the inactivity in our government. Compromise and intellectual debate has been lost in our hyper-partisan culture. That being said, there are issues that the Republicans and Democrats can come together on. One of those is privacy legislation.

The EU introduced policy on data protection on May 25, 2018 that was soon followed by California’s Consumer Privacy Act in the summer. The extraterritorial nature of the internet provides Congress the opportunity to make federal laws protecting citizens from the breach of power by multinational corporations like Facebook, Google and Amazon.

There have been numerous bipartisan bills to come forward in previous Congresses that address privacy rights. Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) said in a statement during a hearing on Consumer Privacy Data on September 26, 2018, “We have arrived at a moment, where, I believe, there is a strong desire by both Republicans and Democrats, and by both industry and public interest groups, to work in good faith to reach a consensus on a national consumer data privacy law that will help consumers, promote innovation, reward organizations with little to hide, and force shady practitioners to clean up their act.”

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Senator John Thune (R-SD) at a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing. Photo: Office of Sen. John Thune

Representatives John Delaney (D-MD) and Pete Olson (R-TX) recently joined forces with Senators Cantwell (D-WA), Young (R-IN), and Markey (D-MA) to work on a bipartisan solution towards artificial intelligence (AI) and privacy that has innovation and competitiveness at its core. Representative Delaney said in a press release, “AI is going to reshape our economy the way the steam engine, the transistor or the personal computer did and I believe the impact will be positive. Big disruptions also create new policy needs and we should start working now so that AI is harnessed in a way that society benefits, the businesses benefit, and that workers benefit.”

Congress and the White House has a unique opportunity to not only get something done, but do so with bipartisan support. Consumer privacy protection may help finally unify and alleviate some of the divisions within Washington D.C. It is now Congress’s job to get to work!

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