The social credit system in China is a scale to rate the behavior of citizens and the confidence they deserve, calculated using an opaque algorithm. This system includes a blacklist for people with low scores.
If George Orwell raised his head, he would see that his dystopian omens are confirmed throughout this 21st century, where user privacy is diluted in favor of government control and the interests of large multinationals. A kind of Big Brother that could well star in the plot of an episode of Black Mirror is the case of the social credit system in China, a tool to rate each citizen and that, as a citizenship card, will restrict the possibilities of traveling or cause penalties.
This public and compulsory social credit system was approved by the Government of the Asian country in 2014, although it will be introduced gradually. According to a statement from the National Development and Reform Commission, the scale will cause, among other consequences, that a citizen with a low score cannot travel by train or plane for at least one year. In its evaluation social or financial crimes come into play: from smoking in prohibited places to not paying insurance, spreading false or fraudulent data or generating problems in public transport.
The citizen classification mechanism and its corresponding blacklist is a pilot scheme of the Social Credit System of China. With the mission of “raising awareness of the integrity and level of trustworthiness of Chinese society,” the Chinese government plans to launch the system nationwide by 2020 to assess the reliability of its 1.4 billion citizens. The authorities have been studying its construction since 2007, in order to restore the order of the market by taking advantage of the financial solvency of companies and individuals, although the scope has reached other aspects of daily life.
In fact, the word “credit” in Chinese – xinyong (信用) – is a basic principle of traditional Confucian ethics, which dates back to the end of the fourth century BC. In its original context, xinyong is a moral concept that indicates a person’s honesty and trustworthiness, but in recent decades, their meanings have also expanded to include financial solvency. Thus, a citizen can damage his personal credit history if he does not show up at a restaurant and does not cancel the reservation, cheats in an online game, crosses in red or leaves false product reviews. Sneaks “earn points” if they report negative behaviors of other people.
Big Data is one of the main allies of this standardized reward and punishment system that ominously foreshadows the global era of the algorithm, since, among many other things, facial recognition is used to identify pedestrians crossing the street . The pilot cities that have already used this system start from a scale of 100 points for citizens, which can be extended with bonuses of 200 for those who perform good actions such as participating in charitable work or separating and recycling garbage. In Suzhou City, for example, one can earn six points for donating blood.
In this way, China rewards good citizens: in some regions citizens with high social credit scores can enjoy free gym facilities, cheaper public transportation and shorter waiting times in hospitals. However, those who are blacklisting face restrictions on their travels and the access they have to public services. One of the most controversial – and terrifying – points is the use of TV and LED screens in public spaces to expose citizens, relying on technology to raise dishonor to the public category.
It should be noted that most pilot schemes are aimed at companies as strictly as people. Thus, those companies with a history of environmental damage or product safety problems are also blacklisted online. The officials are not released either: as of December 2017, more than 1,100 government officials had been blacklisted as unreliable.
Companies join control and surveillance
In the mobile application of Alipay, the main electronic payment platform in China and in the world, there is a tab called ‘Zhima Credit’, which when pressed on it reveals a three-digit number, between 350 and 950. it deals with the social scoring system devised by the Alibaba financial branch, and the main conglomerate of electronic commerce of the planet. With this system, exemplary behavior is rewarded: the best users can access VIP lounges in different airports, use rental services without paying a deposit or borrowing at a more favorable interest.
In the most punitive field, Mobike, one of China’s leading bicycle rental companies, will use the country’s social credit system score to penalize users who have it lower. Those who approve of the hair must pay for the service twice what they pay those who have an outstanding. And here comes the strongest: the suspensions, qualified with a deficient, will have to pay a price up to 100 times above normal, equivalent to about 12 euros for every half hour. Whether Chinese citizens like it or not, their privacy vanishes and dystopia is here.