The new Chinese social credit system

10 months ago
in cn

Crazy. I summarized it to refer to the main points as needed. Original here.

#China is creating a new #social #credit system to rate citizens' #trust. "By 2020, everyone in China will be enrolled in a vast national database that compiles fiscal and government information, including minor traffic violations, and distills it into a single number ranking each citizen."

Alibaba is a big user of similar aggregate technology at the moment, as is China's biggest dating site, Baihe, promoting users who flaunt good credit scores on their profiles. Sesame Credit is the big company behind many of these scores, but it refused to grant a BBC interview for fear that the Chinese government would "refuse to grant a permanent licence to issue credit scores if it engaged with the foreign media." They claim to not track materials published on social media in creating this credit score, but do track financial and consumption details like Alibaba transactions, taxi payments, and judging shoppers by what they buy: "Someone who plays video games for 10 hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person, and someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility."

China says the system will "forge a public opinion environment that trust-keeping is glorious", and "reward those who report acts of breach of trust". A mobile phone game designed by Sesame Credit encourages users to guess whether they have higher or lower credit scores than their friends, encouraging everyone to openly share their ratings. Certain professions will be under particular scrutiny, including teachers, accountants, journalists, medical doctors, and even veterinarians and tour guides. "A national database will merge a wide variety of information on every citizen, assessing whether taxes and traffic tickets have been paid, whether academic degrees have been rightly earned and even, it seems, whether females have been instructed to take birth control." Though being rated is currently voluntary, it seems social pressure exists on many key services to go ahead and use it (eg: Alibaba, Baihe). My big worry is the future: where will this stop? Will political party affiliation get tied in? Personality traits? Cultural characteristics? Health status? If not, how easy will it be for third parties to go ahead and do it anyway? And what will happen when statistical analyses come into play? AI? Robots? Robots with AI? Is this the beginning of Gattaca? And, above all, who is guarding the guardians?

Fears aside, the Chinese have a reason to want this. The few I have talked to don't even bat an eye, saying this system is sorely needed to keep people honest in a society so huge we in the West generally don't quite comprehend. Currently, similar (though much less comprehensive) systems are in place, but they are city-centred, meaning crooks can move and continue being cons in a new city quite easily. Plus, many Chinese don't own houses, cars, or credit cards, so the traditional means of creating a credit rating are unavailable for most. There is also the whole cultural aspect of China operating with a history and value system drastically different than what we've got going on in the West that further explains their complacency and even desire for such a system, but I'll leave this aside for now.

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All that said, it's unfair to focus solely on the negatives; it’s not so one-sided. One Chinese value that seems to have stood the test of time is practicality, which can be seen in their ages-old lean towards meritocracy – since before we even had democracy. To be fair, I can say that such a system would indeed be very practical, and even useful. I really love things like CouchSurfing and Airbnb (and even Steemit, to an extent) for their reputation formation, and don’t see it as entirely a bad thing to have a number following me around – but only should I choose or need to share it. In fact, before these services existed I distinctly remember wishing something like a reputation system existed for me to use when finding housing during university… as it was, each new place I lived in, I had to start building up a reputation again from scratch (something that isn’t very easy as a bigger guy).

I suppose the worry is, what will happen to those who don’t use this when some start doing just that? Were I a merchant and two potential clients were interested in my wares, one with and the other without such a score, I honestly would seriously consider going with the rated fellow, all else being equal. We often forget that social networks aren’t just about us anymore, but also about the information flowing in around us thanks to the input of others. Lots of pertinent examples come to mind: our presence in others’ email contact lists (you email may be registered as Snoopy the Wonder Dog in Gmail, but your brother likely has you under your real name in his), their uploading and tagging of us on Facebook, or even here, in this credit rating system, where our presence can quickly become a tiny black hole dwarfed by the meteor shower of other clients happily using it for convenience and security.

I think this sort of thing is inevitable (I mean, we already have our own credit scores, right), it’s just a question of fair and just and secure and private and good implementation is my focus now.