Social Credit System in China: Why it is so scary.

China's Social Credit System is bad: It's both unique and part of a global trend. This should freak you out.

2022-11-10 / First published: 2019-10-21
Social credit system is bad - and a threat to freedom of speech.
Imagine a world where everyone bins their trash, no one crosses a red light and everyone pays their taxes so that schools are always well funded. This sounds like a nice utopia. But add to this surveillance cameras, face recognition, and the requirement to always praise the government. Now it sounds like an Orwellian nightmare come true: Meet China's Social Credit System.

The modern form of mass surveillance, online surveillance, is easy, cheap and instantaneous. Surveillance results gathered online can be easily aggregated and calculated for real-life consequences, for example to establish a social credit system.

China's authoritarian government under Xi Jinping gives a perfect example of a modern social credit system. It is a highly flexible tool that can quickly be applied to address new policy priorities. And this affects freedom of speech, resulting in censorship and self-censorship, ultimately silencing any form of opposition.

In this post we explain why a social credit system is bad - and it's not only about China.

Social credit system

When people hear social credit system, everyone thinks of China and their system to make people live according to the government's rules. Yet, social credit systems are already in place in many more countries, even here in Europe and America.

How bad is it?

Of course, no one calls it social credit system, but if you think about it, it's already here: The insurance company that calculates your risk premium based on information gathered from social media. The bank that calculates your financial credibility and, thus, your interest rates, based on information provided by the Schufa (German system). AirBnB and Uber disabling accounts, for example, if a home owner or a driver reported you for 'bad behavior', without giving you any choice to appeal.

These are just some examples that clearly show that some form of social credit system is already established, not just in China, but also in Europe and in the USA.

There are companies that gather information about you that lead to consequences based on this information.

The only difference to the looming Chinese version is that it is not yet inter-connected. If Uber blocks you, you can still use a taxi. If one insurance asks for a high premium, you can try to get another. But what if this changes?

The web is a surveillance machine

As it stands today, you are what you click. As soon as you access the internet, everything you do is being tracked by your browser, by third parties, by cookies, by almost all the sites you keep being logged into (Google, Facebook, etc.).

The entire internet is a surveillance machine. The data you freely give is aggregated and a profile about you is being created. Up to now this profile is 'only' being used for targeted advertisements. But it could well be used to create a so called 'social credit system'.

The consequences right now are not nice, but also not too bad: The advertisements shown to you might lead to overpriced products and services because your profile suggests that you are willing to pay too much for these things. Whether because you are a fan, or because you like the convenience of a quick buy, or simply because you have too much money and, thus, don't care.

Right now it is easy to filter out the consequences of this form of online surveillance by simply installing an ad-blocker.

However, the vast amount of data combined with artificial intelligence opens the door for unprecedented tracking and data abuse: The Clearview scandal demonstrates this in the worst way possible.

Interconnected surveillance

Right now, every company and every public agency only has a subset of data. However, thsi set of data is constantly growing and data brokers use and abuse this data. In addition, it is very likely that in the future all the data available online will be connected.

If you use several Google services, this is already happening. Yet with better tracking technology, tech companies will find a way to connect your data gathered across services: Your Google user profile will be merged with your Facebook profile which will be merged with your insurance profile and so on.

And that's exactly what is so scary about the Chinese Social Credit System: Western media suggest that this merging of information is already being done in China. The connection of lots of information about individual people leading to an individual score that either helps them achieve the things they want in life or prevents them from same.

As soon as this happens, as soon as all data is connected and a profile about you is established, it will be very difficult to change this profile.

Surveillance has real-life consequences

This virtual profile of yours will lead to real-life consequences: You might not get the loan you need to buy a home because of a bad social credit score. You might not get a car insurance, and thus, are stuck with public transport.

Most people think that these consequences will not affect them because they lead a good life. After all, that's the aim of any such system: force people to lead a good life. And what's so bad about this?

Definition of 'good'

The problem is the definition of 'good': For companies 'good' might imply people who are recurring customers, who buy too much and spend too much.

For governments 'good' might mean people who follow the rules and don't speak up. Ever. No matter what the government decides.

Dystopian science fiction

Why a social credit system is bad? It sounds like a dystopian nightmare come true.

While all of this sounds like dystopian science fiction, like the book "1984" or like an episode from the British TV show "Black Mirror", the way the internet is currently working makes such a scenario appear much more likely than it might have been two decades ago.

Big Data - with all its advances it promises to society - also comes with a very big threat: In the future, governments and companies have the power to know everything about us.

Why is a social credit system bad?

A social credit system will

  • Define peoples lives, limiting their life choices
  • Lead to inequality
  • Influence people's behavior & self-censorship
  • Harm freedom of speech

A social credit system uses all data available about individuals to apply scores. Based on these scores, people may get a loan or not, may be allowed to go to university or may not. What is so bad about the social credit system is that people can not appeal against the score. It defines their life, limits their life choices, and leads to inequality.

Because everyone knows how the score affects them, a social credit system will also influence people's behavior. Whether you want to please a company in the hope of getting a better deal or a government, any form of social credit system will lead to self-censorship.

You will no longer post your pictures from last night's party on social media out of fear your health insurance might go up. Or you will no longer post pictures from the demonstration you went to out of fear that your government will not let you go to university.

Even worse: You might stop partying or going to demonstrations altogether.

In the end, this will lead to self-censorship to an extend we have never seen before. Fueled by all-round online surveillance, the majority of people will try to present themselves in the best way possible, always and everywhere, even in their private conversations.

Freedom of speech is undermined

Freedom of speech is protected by most constitutions, and this for a very good reason. Only with freedom of speech we can discuss any issue freely, develop new ideas, and evolve our democracies into better places for everyone.

Any social credit system - be it private or public - is bad for freedom of speech.

Even though in our Western democracies, there is no state actor trying to implement such a system, the threat is still looming.

While we perceive the Chinese Social Credit System as 'bad' - because a non-democratic government uses it to make its citizens follow the rules, the private systems that are currently emerging in our societies are no better.

Freedom of speech needs privacy

That's why freedom of speech and privacy are interlinked. Only if you can keep your private data private, it is impossible for state actors or companies to harvest your data and create a profile about you.

Unfortunately, tech companies are much faster in developing surveillance apps and services than state actors are in making laws to protect our right to privacy, such as the European GDPR for example.

Right now, the only option we have to protect ourselves from extensive data mining is to choose services that protect our privacy. To make a start, here are our recommendations how you can leave data mining services like Google & Facebook behind.

Fight with us for our right to privacy!

Tutanota team


What is China's Social Credit System?

China's Social Credit System is based on extensive government surveillance that is being used to 'rate' citizens. It comprises:

  1. Extensive surveillance of the entire population
  2. A social score calculated on the basis of this surveillance data
  3. The social score defines people's lives

In China, people are tracked in many ways by the government, which enables the government to calculate a score of individuals based on their behaviour. Several factors like 'have they paid their taxes', 'did they drive through a red light', 'did they post negative comments about the government on social media' influence this score. Based on this score, people might even get blacklisted by the government. As a result they may not be able to book train tickets, go to university, or get a loan.

Thus, the Chinese social credit system directly decides about how people can lead their lives. The pressure built up by the system make people act according to the governments' expectations and any form of opposition is silenced.

The way the Chinese system directly judges people is unique. People have no option to appeal to the process, basically they are sentenced without a trial - and this is what makes the system so awfully scary.

History

In 2020, the Chinese Social Credit System, which has been under development and testing since 2009, is intended to standardize the assessment of citizens' and businesses' economic and social reputation, or 'Social Credit'.

With this system, people and companies can be tracked and evaluated for their trustworthiness. The Chinese credit system is closely linked to China's surveillance system with facial recognition, big data analysis, and AI.

Learn here how face recognition works and how to stop it.

The Social Credit System is marketed by Xi Jinping's Communist Party of China to its people as a great improvement to society as a whole. The aim is that people and companies become more honest, to fight corruption, and to have a better functioning and a more stable society overall.

The idea behind this is understandable: As social networks decline and anonymity in cities rises, the social pressure to behave in an acceptable way declines as well. China now replaces this social pressure with the Social Credit System so that people even when living anonymously in any city behave in an acceptable way.

Power over people

China, however, is an autocratic country. Here the power does not lie with the people, but the government wants to have maximum power over the people. Opposing the Chinese Communist Party is not allowed. Activists and investigative journalists have a very difficult stand in Chinese society, and the Social Credit System will make this even worse.

The Social Credit System has a lot of potential to improve society on the surface while destroying people's trust in the government and society as a whole underneath it. After all, the system undermines the rule of law.

People can get blacklisted easily, which has severe real-life consequences. Anyone being blacklisted, is put on such a list instantly. There is no trial at court. People and companies can appeal against being blacklisted or against receiving bad credit.

But the concept of 'innocent until proven guilty' is reversed: They have to prove that they are innocent.

As the Social Credit System goes hand-in-hand with one of the worst surveillance apparatuses, it infringes legal rights such as the right to reputation, the right to privacy, and the right to free speech.

Millions of people blacklisted

Negative factors for credit ratings have been different in the past, depending on where you live, but are supposed to be streamlined across China in the future. Negative factors include:

  • Dishonest and fraudulent financial behavior
  • Playing loud music
  • Violating traffic rules
  • Making reservations at restaurants and not showing up
  • Failing to correctly sort your waste
  • Fraudulently using other people's public transportation ID cards

Positive factors, on the other hand, include:

  • Donating blood
  • Donating to charity
  • Volunteering to community services

According to Wikipedia, blacklisted people are already being banned from using public transport: For instance, 26.82 million air tickets as well as 5.96 million high-speed rail tickets had been denied to people who were deemed "untrustworthy (失信)".

On top of that, some personal information of blacklisted people is deliberately made accessible to everyone and is displayed online as well as at various public venues such as movie theaters and buses. Some cities have also banned children of "untrustworthy" residents from attending private schools and even universities.

A modern way of putting people in the pillory.

Who is being blacklisted?

Every citizen and every company in China now has to worry about being blacklisted by the Social Credit System. Since the rule of law does not apply to the system, people might even get blacklisted by accident. Then, it is their duty to prove their innocence - not the other way around. This can make life for lots of people very difficult.

For people being blacklisted, the consequences can be very similar as for people who are being innocently charged based on location tracking data, which these two examples from the USA demonstrate.

On top of that, China also uses the system to blacklist people opposing the government. According to The Globe and Mail one of the first persons being blacklisted was Liu Hu, a journalist in China, writing about censorship and government corruption.

Liu was listed on a List of Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement by the Supreme People's Court as "not qualified" to buy a plane ticket, and banned from traveling some train lines, buying property, or taking out a loan.

"There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to," he told The Globe and Mail.

"What's really scary is there's nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere."

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