China’s Nightmarish Citizen Scores Are a Warning For Americans

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China is launching a comprehensive “credit score” system, and the more I learn about it, the more nightmarish it seems. China appears to be leveraging all the tools of the information age—electronic purchasing data, social networks, algorithmic sorting—to construct the ultimate tool of social control. It is, as one commentator put it, “authoritarianism, gamified.” Read this piece for the full flavor—it will make your head spin. If that and the little other reporting I’ve seen is accurate, the basics are this:

  • Everybody is measured by a score between 350 and 950, which is linked to their national identity card. While currently supposedly voluntary, the government has announced that it will be mandatory by 2020.
  • The system is run by two companies, Alibaba and Tencent, which run all the social networks in China and therefore have access to a vast amount of data about people’s social ties and activities and what they say.
  • In addition to measuring your ability to pay, as in the United States, the scores serve as a measure of political compliance. Among the things that will hurt a citizen’s score are posting political opinions without prior permission, or posting information that the regime does not like, such as about the Tienanmen Square massacre that the government carried out to hold on to power, or the Shanghai stock market collapse.
  • It will hurt your score not only if you do these things, but if any of your friends do them. Imagine the social pressure against disobedience or dissent that this will create.
  • Anybody can check anyone else’s score online. Among other things, this lets people find out which of their friends may be hurting their scores.
  • Also used to calculate scores is information about hobbies, lifestyle, and shopping. Buying certain goods will improve your score, while others (such as video games) will lower it.
  • Those with higher scores are rewarded with concrete benefits. Those who reach 700, for example, get easy access to a Singapore travel permit, while those who hit 750 get an even more valued visa.
  • Sadly, many Chinese appear to be embracing the score as a measure of social worth, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

A few years ago I wrote a piece about how the fall of the Soviet Union, for all its benefits, has made it harder to defend privacy in the United States. During the Cold War, I argued, we defined ourselves in opposition to an enemy that exemplified and embodied in very real form the nightmarish potential of widespread surveillance and control. This made it easy to point to surveillance and shout, “un-American!”

We have thankfully seen the end of the old totalitarian regimes, but often they have been replaced by authoritarian regimes, which operate with free markets and greater personal freedom, but continue to apply just enough power to stave off threats to their rule. Arrests, beatings, imprisonment, and shootings are such crude tools for the silencing of political opposition and dissent—so much subtler and more effective to pressure people, to turn the exercise of power from a hammer, striking the body politic from without, into a drug, which permeates social life from within and shapes it in the desired directions. In today’s world, all the tools are in place to allow a government to do just that in stunningly subtle yet powerful ways, and the Chinese government appears to be wasting no time in exploiting that potential to the fullest.

The United States is a much different place than China, and the chances that our government will explicitly launch this kind of a program any time in the near future is nil, but there are consistent gravitational pulls toward this kind of behavior on the part of many public and private U.S. bureaucracies, and a very real danger that many of the dynamics we see in the Chinese system will emerge here over time. On the government side, for example I have written about how the TSA’s airline passenger “whitelist” system could evolve in this direction. In the private sector, Frank Pasquale notes that elements of its judgment-and-reward system already exist in the U.S. private-sector credit scoring infrastructure.

I hope this new Chinese system becomes household knowledge in the United States, and can provide the kind of widely recognized paradigm for what to avoid and how not to be that the old totalitarian regimes used to give us. At the ACLU we are constantly warning of the dangers of abuses of power, and often the dangers we cite, while well-founded, consist of potential futures, leading critics to say we’re being “merely theoretical.” With this Chinese system, a whole range of things we’ve warned about are no longer theoretical.

Update (10/8/15):
I’m starting to hear questions raised (here and here) about the accuracy of the source on which I based this blog post. I did include a passing caution about my lack of direct knowledge of the source’s accuracy, but I wish I had been more explicit in offering that caution given the language and cultural barriers between the United States and China, and the scarcity of reporting on this system by professional journalists with direct knowledge of Chinese society. I hope to see such reporting soon. That said, the Chinese scoring systems still sound plenty bad, and we all still need to consider the danger that our own institutions will drift toward such systems and their potential abuses.

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Anonymous

The entire counterculture movement in the late 60's and early 70's was a reaction to the first signs of this kind of Orwellian control. At the time, conformity went with military conscription, driving many to the adoption of nonconforming values and lifestyles. When what is socially acceptable stops being logically related to integrity and achievement and starts being based on generalizations reflecting the personal preferences and prejudices of those in power, you plant the seeds of what this article is talking about we as a people will be well advised to resist this at all levels.

nelle douville

I've suggested for years our willingness to do things like credit scores was a bad, bad thing. Not in and of itself if used for financial purposes, but it reaches beyond now and impacts things like housing and auto insurance.

We need to band aggregation of information on people for any purpose other than a law enforcement investigation and for a very narrow subset of financial reasons, such as a car or home purchase. Everything else should be banned, particularly by private corporations (looking at you, Google.)

Zara

The Culture of Compliance

Anonymous

What are you talking about the chances of this happening in the US are nil? It's already happening. NSA and the Pentagon are spying on people, people are attenuating what they say online for fear of someone listening, people are denied jobs based on their credit scores, people are "watched" because of what their friends say, people are put on no-fly lists for innocent comments, kids are being trained to not have any privacy, not think outside the box, and those who do are forcibly medicated, etc. The only difference is degree. Obviously our situation is not as dire as that in China, but that is only because we still have the remnants of a constitutional system in place. The IMPETUS is the same, and the same people are driving it. After another 20-30 years of chipping away at people's rights and conditioning the newer generation to , every bit of what is happening in China can happen here.

sandy

I completely agree. Just have a bad credit score and see if you can even rent an apartment. We recently hired a temp- not even a fulltime employee and her Facebook page was evaluated to see if she was "a freak"! With GPS on all our phones we can be located whenever someone wants to find us back enough. The only ones who will be exempt from this kind of scrutiny are the fringe society who go off the grid or practice under illegal identities. IOW, criminals and survivalists. That sounds pretty much like how the USSR was described to me in school in the 60's and 70's.

Anonymous

Well said....I agree.

Anonymous

That's if the government even lasts another decade under its current structure.

Kevin Jones

One equivalent here in the US is the suppression of upward mobility on the middle and lower classes. When the majority of people are living paycheck to paycheck with little or no savings and security, it tends to shift the public focus from political dissent to survival.

Anonymous

People waste the money they make and squander the educational opportunities they are given. That accounts for 90% of the problems.

Political Cynic

I HIGHLY suggest you take a look at what people like Anita Sarkeesian and her bunch, the DARLINGS of the media these days, said-and supported-in the recent report from UN Women on "cyberviolence"-and the specific proposals made for its "prevention". That would include censorship by private corporations, enforced by government regulations, and based on whether or not opinions being expressed were deemed "acceptable" under that scheme.

Don't be so certain it can't happen in the US-because it already IS. It is being pushed by those claiming disagreement is "hate speech", disagreement is "harassment", and that anything might be "triggering" and thus require a warning. It is being pushed by people who support "block bots" on social media sites that block individuals based on who they FOLLOW.

Take a look at college campuses today-all over the US. Look at many of their speech codes. Look at how frequently speakers with "unacceptable" views are "barred" from speaking by groups screaming about how "offensive" or "politically incorrect" their views are.

Then think of what our society will be like when the same groups being taught on college campuses nationwide that this sort of silencing of others is acceptable become majority voters in the US.

I wouldn't be so certain something like this couldn't happen here-because from where I stand-it isn't that far a reach to think that it very well could.

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