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The West could be closer to China's system of 'social credit scoring' than you think

The West could be closer to China's system of 'social credit scoring' than you think
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China has become the largest surveillance state on the planet. Taking a page out of the Netflix show Black Mirror, the People’s Republic of China has begun assigning scores that dictate its citizens’ ability to travel, their social mobility, educational opportunities, and where they can live. The totalitarian 1984 of the future is now 2018 China. 

China has established a “social credit system” to assign these scores. In June 2014, the National Development and Reform Commission of China issued a State Council Notice initiating the development of a program to “raise the honest mentality and credit levels of the entire society,” “build a Socialist harmonious society," and “encourage keeping trust and punish breaking trust.” Now fully implemented ahead of the 2020 deadline by the Chinese government, the credit system functions like financial credit scores in America except rather than dictate one’s ability to obtain a line of credit, the Chinese social credit score impacts nearly every aspect of one’s life.

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To date, the implementation and instrumentality of the plan remains largely secret and arbitrarily applied. The best guidance of what to expect from the social score system comes from the 2014 Notice, which better defines several categories of scoring. There are a few troubling areas.



First, online behavior is subject to intense scrutiny. Online speech that "denigrates" others results in score deductions while tattling on fellow citizens can increase scores. The policy goes further than typical online crimes by establishing “online credit black list systems" for behavior considered "grave acts of breaking trust online." Getting blacklisted means Internet usage limitations, public humiliation, or a complete internet ban.

Second, banking and social media information are collected, stored, and evaluated. China has a highly regulated Internet, but anecdotal reports suggest that while some rules are relatively clear like adherence to Chinese law or Communist Party rules, others are more ambiguous such as upholding "social sincerity" and "harmony." Even before scoring, speech in China was highly policed; the difference now is that "bad" speech carries significant consequences.

The freedom to travel will also be highly regulated. Last Tuesday, CBS New York reported that journalist, Liu Hu, is currently unable to fly for failure to sincerely apologize for some of his tweets. The social credit system integrates freedom to use "public roads, railways, waterways, aviation, channels and other such transportation markets" with the other assessment standards to create a holistic "trust-breaking record." High credit score individuals will be rewarded with preferential travel treatment within and out of China. Imagine your low Uber rating means you can no longer take any public transportation.

China collects and calculates scores with the help of large data collection firms downloading on the Chinese people. Wired reports the Chinese government conscripted the assistance from China’s Uber equivalent, along with finance companies and others, to create the infrastructure for mass data collection and score algorithms to monitor nearly every aspect of modern life.

Under the guise of creating a utopia, China is now one of the most authoritarian and liberty bereft societies on the planet. The Chinese defend the system as a vehicle to “maintain stability” and "strengthen sincerity.” In reality, China views control over its population paramount to liberty. 

It’s tempting to think this government overreach is purely reserved to China, after all they did just forfeit significant freedom by electing Xi Jinping president for life. This is incorrect thinking. 

The rest of the world is steps away from trailing the Chinese into a surveillance state.

The attitudes are already in place. The U.K. fines and even imprisons people for hate speech or speech deemed abhorrent to the prevailing norms of society. The U.S. is not far behind. Last week, a Manhattan judge ruled a bar can toss Trump supporters for their political viewpoints. A recent proliferation of politically motivated boycotts seeks to punish "bad" viewpoints; protesters are eager to shout down incorrect speech. In this political climate, it’s not difficult to imagine businesses or the government assessing social benefit or worth based upon a variety of factors including political speech.

With incredible data collection, the plumbing is already in place for such a system to take hold. Our tech companies catalogue large quantities of data on everyone. As we saw with Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 election, this data can be used to steer particular viewpoints; it’s not a far cry to imagine information being used to control viewpoints. 

It’s trendy pretending America is enduring a 1984 fascist hellscape, but China is actually implementing the largest surveillance state in the history of civilization with over 1.3 billion people under its watchful eye. The free world is not far behind if we don’t protect privacy, deny our policymakers’ desire to expand the reach of government, and resist the urge to commercially or socially punish those who don't share our political ideology. Privacy and liberty are never more than one generation away from extinction.

Tyler Grant is an associate at Washington, D.C.-based law firm Clifford Chance. He spent a year as a Fulbright Fellow in Taiwan.