It sounds like a fire-and-brimstone warning to keep children in line; there is a book somewhere which records your every act, every minor sin and misdemeanour. Except this mythical book is all too real, and it knows everything about you, from your financial history to your political inclinations to your relationship status. And that information will soon be available for all to see, if it isn’t already.
In a brilliant TechCrunch piece, “lifelong geek” Arthur Chu outlines the dystopian implications of China’s Social Credit System, a government initiative created with the intent to mine all of the professional, financial and personal data people generate online. This data is taken and amalgamated via specialist algorithms into an individual score which supposedly denotes character traits such as trustworthiness and responsibility. And that score is then made public.
So far, the information being gathered is mostly financial. Alibaba-owned Ant Financial runs Sesame Credit, the scoring software used by the SCS, which gives citizens a minimum score of 350, with a ceiling of 950 based on their financial history. People who spend more through Alipay (the Alibaba payment app) are more likely to gain a higher score. And there are certainly practical incentives to boost your score; the higher you rank, the more opportunities arise, such as being able to hire cars through certain companies without needing to pay a deposit.
But the SCS isn’t content with just financial information; it wants to collect data from every aspect of citizens’ lives and integrate it into a “mega platform.” This would encompass everything from appraisals at work, to your tastes in literature, to how you engage with current affairs, to the people you associate with; a sure-fire way of detecting and tracking dissident thought.
Chu believes this would essentially result in the creation of a “digital panopticon” where we all know we are being watched, and so society begins to police itself: “Foucault said you can build a prison without walls just by letting your prisoner know he’s always being watched. In real life in 2015, you can totally control someone’s behaviour by training them to tweet or Instagram every tiny thing they do and see how many likes it gets.”
Chu acknowledges that stories such as these coming out of Communist China are often disproportionately tainted with “yellow panic,” and that China is far from the only country guilty of such practices. As New Scientist’s Hal Hodson points out, “people in the West are often tracked just as relentlessly, but by corporations seeking profits.” They’re not wrong; a cottage industry has emerged around turning consumers’ Facebook activity into a credit rating. “Of course,” Hodson adds, “that doesn’t mean China’s intent to monitor and score its populace isn’t worrying.”
Just last month, Peeple, the ‘Yelp for human beings’ app, was derided and robbed of all credibility before it even launched. As Chu sees it, the SCS is Peeple-writ-large, a Klout score for your entire worth as a member of society. “The oppressive world that SCS implies, the Orwellian nightmare of being constantly surveilled and constantly judged, is not an attack on the Internet as it currently exists,” he says. “It’s the Internet’s logical endpoint.”