The Minority Report is a 2002 film set in the not so distant dystopian future of 2054. In this dystopian imagination of what’s to come, police use a combination of mass surveillance and machine learning to predict the likelihood that an individual is a criminal; allowing them to act preemptively to stop crime. I won’t go into detail as to how the story unfolds (though its definitely worth a watch), rather I’d like to take a look at how this vision of tomorrow is playing out today.
Though similar surveillance is very likely happening in our own backyard (think NSA) one country has generated headlines recently for its expanding surveillance program, and what it means for its citizens: China.
Social Credit System
First introduced in 2014, China’s Social Credit System is a country-wide reputation system being developed to assess the social and financial standing of each citizen and business. Unlike the familiar FICO Credit Score that most in America are familiar with, China’s Social Credit System takes into account far more than financial habits. According to Chinese authorities an indiviual’s credit score will be based on the following: Honesty in government affairs, Commercial integrity, Societal integrity, and Judicial credibility. The purpose? To raise awareness for the importance of integrity and the level of credibility within the society. But how did this Social Credit System come to be and what are the consequences?
The Birth of Social Credit
According to appleinsider upwards of 38 million Americans had used Apple Pay for their purchases in 2017. Likewise, Google Pay has around 100 million users and Samsung Pay around 50 million. In comparison the two most common mobile payment options in China, WeChat Pay and Alipay, have nearly one billion active users. Alipay, and the company behind it, in particular plays a pivotal role in the evolution of China’s Social Credit System.
Whether due to cultural attitudes towards debt, poor consumer banking options, or some other reason credit cards (so very popular in America) never caught on in China to the extent they did in other countries. Instead, much of China’s population prefer to use mobile payment services, like Alipay, for their daily purchases. From supermarkets to street vendors, practically every where a person would make a purchase they could use Alipay to process it.
Another mobile service that became increasingly popular, and created by the company behind Alipay, is Sesame (or Zhima) Credit. Founded as a loyalty program database for consumers, Sesame Credit expanded into one of the largest data collecting agencies on the planet. Compiling information one would normally expect, such as payment history and debt ratio, as well as more personal details such as the characteristics of the user’s friends and family. This financial and social information, as well as details regarding three other specific data sets are compiled and analyzed to provide each user a credit score between 350 and 950. While the company behind Alipay and Sesame Credit officially denies sharing data with the Chinese government, it has begun implementing a system incredibly similar to that of Sesame’s.
The Consequences of a Surveillance State
In America, a lot rides on a person’s credit. Those with the highest scores are able to bypass deposits on purchases and make them at low (some times no) interest. On the other hand, individuals like me who have poor credit scores lack the ability to obtain lines of credit and when they do the interest can be exorbitant. Though certainly those of us in such a position are unhappy with their credit rating, few would go so far as to argue that the system is unfair or unjust. This is because it takes into account only our financial behaviors, information corollary to the purpose of the score.
Like a great FICO score, China’s social credit system provides a number of benefits to high scoring participants. Those with better ratings earn discounts at businesses, smoother travel experiences, freedom from deposits on purchases and rentals, and even a more prominent position on dating sites. prominent visibility on dating apps. Overall your social credit score becomes a status symbol, a way of distinguishing well off citizens (those with high scores) from the ‘untouchables’ of society (those with low).
What consequences do these ‘untouchables’ face because of their low social credit? Here’s where things start to get scary. As an example let’s look at the now famous Liu Hu, an investigative journalist in China who has been black-listed by the social credit system.
After publicly accusing a government official of corruption, Liu Hu was found guilty of defamation. He was compelled to issue a public apology and subjected to a sizable fine. This, and the denial of paying an additional erroneous fine, lead to Liu’s social credit plummeting. What impact has this had on his life? Without any official notice Liu Hu lost the ability to take out loans, purchase property, or even travel freely within the confines of the country or without. Moreover, because your friend group and family are factored into your social credit, his blacklist status threatens to damage those he cares about most.
As of now only a small portion of China is piloting this new social credit system. Regardless, the impact it is having on people’s lives (such as Liu Hu’s) is real, and its terrifying. What was once something only imagined in film and literature has become real in the world’s most populace nation. How long until something similar hits the US? With the mass data collection by social media platforms, Google, Cambridge Analytica, and the unlawful surveillance perpetrated by the NSA and other government agencies such a future is not hard to imagine. More than any other time in our nation’s history people seem perfectly comfortable with sacrificing individual liberties and privacy for the security that comes (seemingly) from an omniscient state.
Call to Action
I will never ask my readers to purchase a product, I’m more of an ‘open source’ kind of person. BUT I would ask that all of you bring attention to these kinds of conversations. Our politicians spend days and weeks debating a number of issues, some critical, some trivial; but very rarely do they pay attention to the many possible futures that are just around the corner. Its my hope that in doing so we can have nationwide dialogue about these issues.
Once again… thank you for your time!