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Why a social credit system 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.

2019-10-21 / Updated 2022-05-31
Social credit system is bad - and a threat to freedom of speech.
The modern form of mass surveillance, online surveillance, is easy, cheap and instanteneous. Surveillance results gathered online can be easily aggregated and calculated for real-life consequences, for example to establish a social credit system. And this affects freedom of speech, in one of the worst ways possible. 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 with the help of cookies, by almost all the sites you keep being logged in (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, 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.

Sounds like 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 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 ones 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 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:

  1. Extensive surveillance of the entire population
  2. A social score is calculated based on surveillance data
  3. The social score influences 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 version 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.

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