A lot of companies have come up with a lot of interesting ways to use big data for the good of humankind.
But the Chinese government has laid down plans to take it to another level.
The Chinese government is calling the program the Social Credit System.
It plans to launch the program in 2020.
And the only aim of the Social Credit System would be to judge a given citizen’s trustworthiness or, of course, the lack thereof.
In other words, the Chinese government wants to take a closer look at the things that more than 1.3 billion of its residents are doing on a daily basis.
The State Council of China came out with the document (which some found a bit too ominous) and published it with the title Planning Outlining for the Construction of a Social Credit System.
That happened back on June 14, 2014.
Even taking into account the fact that most Chinese policy documents are long, this document was lengthier.
Some found the content of the document rather dry.
Nevertheless, the document clearly contained the underpinnings of a pretty radical idea.
The Chinese government wanted to test a kind of national trust score.
A score which would rate each and every citizen based on their daily activities.
Having a hard time imagining that?
Let’s start with some hypothetical situations before we move to what the Chinese government actually wants to do.
Imagine people living in a country where the government constantly keeps a track of your everyday activities.
Not only does the government monitor your activities, it also evaluates them.
Under such a program a government would know what sort of things any of its citizens is buying at a given shop or if the citizen is purchasing something from an online store.
The government would also know where the citizen is at all given times.
Moreover, government agencies would also know some personal details about each and every single citizen of the country.
We’re talking about personal details such as,
- All of the given citizen’s friends
- The way the citizen interacts with his/her friends.
- The number of hours a given citizen has spent playing video games or watching online content.
- What kind of bills the citizen pays (or doesn’t pay).
- The kind of taxes that the citizen does or doesn’t pay.
Now it should become much easier for anyone to picture the kind of government surveillance program that the Chinese government envisions for the people of its country.
But perhaps it isn’t something that big of a deal.
Afterall, most of what we have mentioned above already takes place.
And we can thank the likes of Google, Instagram, and Facebook for that.
Technology companies such as these are actually data-collecting behemoths more than anything else.
And we haven’t even listed other smaller data-hungry animals such as Fitbit, the very popular health tracking application.
The only difference between the data collection that Google does and what the Chinese government wants to do is that the Chinese government wants to use the collected data to form a system.
Using the system, the government would rate its citizens’ behaviors.
Then, the government would rate those behaviors either as negative or positive.
After that, the Chinese government would do a bit of distilling and come up with a single digitized number.
This number would conform to the rules the government would have already set up beforehand.
And that, would actually create any given citizen’s Citizen Score.
The Citizen Score would actually take a critical position in any given citizen’s life.
Using the Citizen Score number, people would know who they could trust and who they could not.
There is another aspect of such a rating system that we have not discussed so far.
And that is:
The government would publicly rank all of its citizens’ rating against the whole of the country’s population.
This would enable other companies and organizations to have a look at the ratings and then determine the citizen’s eligibility for, let’s say, a mortgage.
Or even a job.
Organizations and companies could also use the Citizen Score to decide when and where the given citizen’s children could go to school.
Other uses of the Citizen Score would also include the chances of a given citizen’s to get a date.
So this kind of a Big Brother on steroids program is the future right?
Such a program is not someone’s futuristic vision of what would happen.
It is happening.
And the system has already started and made progress in China.
As mentioned at the top, the Chinese government has started to develop SCS or Social Credit System in order to rate each and every one of its 1.3 billion citizens in terms of their trustworthiness.
Needless to say that the government in China has pitched the system as a reasonably desirable method of measuring and enhancing nationwide trust.
The Chinese government also wants to build the country’s culture on sincerity.
Moreover, the policy document for the program also stated that the Social Credit System would forge a productive public opinion environment in which keeping a high level of trust is glorious.
The document also mentioned that the new Social Credit System would strengthen sincerity as far as government affairs were concerned.
Additionally, such a system would also benefit social sincerity, commercial sincerity as well as allow China, as a country, to construct a high level of judicial credibility.
But one can’t really say much about the system’s wider purpose.
Perhaps that is the reason why some are way less sanguine about the Social Credit System than the Chinese government.
A Chinese internet specialist who works at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Johan Lagerkvist, recently described the Social Credit System in less than ideal terms.
He said that the Social Credit System represented an extremely ambitious project both in its scope and in its depth.
Johan mentioned how the Social Credit System would scrutinize individual behavior and the type of books the people of China would be reading at a given time.
He also said that the Social Credit System was basically a mix between consumer tracking from Amazon and an Orwellian political world.
Another postdoctoral scholar who has specialized in Chinese law and government at the prestigious Van Vollenhoven Institute at Leiden University, Rogier Creemers, published a reasonably comprehensive interpretation/translation of the Chinese government’s Social Credit System plan.
Rogier compared the Social Credit System to Yelp reviews plus the big huge nanny state who watched over all of its citizens.
Technically speaking, for now at least, every Chinese citizen would have a choice to participate or not participate in the Citizens Scores program.
In other words, the Social Credit System is still a voluntary program.
But here is the twist:
When the year 2020 finally comes around, participation in the program will become mandatory for all citizens of China.
To put it another way, the Chinese government will rate and then rank the behavior of each and every citizen giving no regard to their likeness or dislikeness of the program.
Moreover, the program would also include every single legal person.
In other words, every company and every other type of entity in China will have to participate in the program.
So, now all of us know that by 2020 the Chinese government will roll-out the Social Credit System on a national level.
But what about the two years left before that?
Reports say that the Chinese government is taking its time and watching the results of its Social Credit System.
As expected, it is learning from the initial stages of the program as well.
Some are calling the whole program as a marriage between the capitalist can-do and communist oversight.
In other words, the Chinese government has successfully given licenses to a total of eight private companies.
The job of these companies is to come up with algorithms and whole systems for the Social Credit System and Social Credit Scores.
No one gets a prize in predicting that data giants in the country currently operate two of the best working and best known of such projects.
So which companies are we talking about here?
First up is China Rapid Finance.
China Rapid Finance is actually a partner of Tencent, the Chinese social-network behemoth.
The other thing readers need to know about Tencent is that it is also the developer behind the most popular messaging app in China, WeChat.
Currently, more than a total of 850 million users actively use the messaging app.
The second company is Sesame Credit.
Who runs Sesame Credit?
Ant Financial Services Group or AFSG.
The Ant Financial Services Group is actually an affiliate company of another technology giant in China, Alibaba.
The main business of Ant Financial is to provide loans to all types of small and medium-sized businesses and sell insurance products.
With that said, Ant’s genuine and only star is AliPay.
AliPay is the payment arm of Ant Financial.
People in China don’t just AliPay to purchase products via online shopping websites.
They also use AliPay for,
- School fees
- Cinema tickets
- Transferring money to one person from another person.
Sesame Credit, as a company, has also managed to team up with another platform that generates a huge amount of data.
We are talking about Didi Chuxing.
Didi Chuxing is a ride-hailing company just like Uber.
In fact, Uber was Didi Chuxing main competitor as far as China was concerned.
Recently though, Didi Chuxing acquired Uber (an American company) China and all of its operations in China (that happened in 2016).
Sesame Credit has also forged a partnership with Baihe.
Baihe is the largest matchmaking online service in China.
No one should find it hard to understand how all of these companies and their partnerships would manage to generate gargantuan amounts of data.
And not just data.
We’re talking about big data here that companies like Sesame Credit could easily tap into for the purposes of assessing how the Chinese people behave in various areas of their life and then rate them according to their actions.
How Do You Rate People?
Well, as far as Sesame Credit goes, the company measures individuals on the basis of a score that ranges between 950 and 350 points.
The technology giant, Alibaba, has not divulged the rather complex algorithm the company makes use of in order to calculate the above-mentioned number.
But Alibaba has revealed the biggest give factors it takes into account when trying to calculate the score for an individual.
The first of those factors is credit history.
To take an example, this score takes a look at whether the given citizen manages to pay his/her phone bill and/or electricity bill on time.
The second factor is fulfillment capacity.
What if fulfillment capacity?
Alibaba defines fulfillment capacity as a given user’s ability to fulfill her/his contract obligations.
This is something that the company has mentioned in its guidelines.
The third factor related to personal characteristics where the system verifies personal information like a given citizen’s mobile phone number along with the citizen’s address.
Coming to the fourth factor we see behavior and preference.
This factor is by far the most interesting factor of the four that we have mentioned so far.
Under such a system, innocuous looking things such as a given person’s shopping habits actually become a strong measure and indicator of their character.
In fact, Alibaba (originally an e-commerce giant) has admitted that it does judge people according to the types of things/products that they buy on a regular basis.
The Sesame Technology Director, Li Yingyun, recently said that someone who played video games for as much as ten hours in a single day, would qualify as a person who is idle.
A person who regularly purchases diapers would register in the system as someone who is, in all likelihood a parent and hence, on balance, would represent someone with a greater sense of responsibility.
Some of our readers might have already recognized a pattern here.
The pattern is that the system doesn’t just investigate the given person’s behavior.
It tries to shape it.
The system nudges the Chinese citizens away from behaviors and purchases that the government in China does not consider as befitting of a good citizen.
And yes, a person’s friends matter a lot as well.
This actually represents the fifth factor.
Alibaba calls it interpersonal relationships.
The system gives proper weight to the choice of friends a person has made online and the interactions between the person and his/her friends online.
If a person wants to boost his/her score in this category then the person will have to share positive energy online.
What is positive energy?
According to Sesame Credit, it means the person has to share nice messages about how great the economy of the country is doing and how good the government is.
However, Alibaba remains adamant.
The company says that it currently it does not allow anything negative that the user posts on various social media platforms to affect his/her scores.
Of course, there is no way to confirm this as Alibaba has kept its algorithm secret.
But one should not have a hard time in seeing how such a system would play out when the Chinese government finally brings in its own form of citizen score system by the time 2020 comes around.
At this point in time, there is no suggestion that the Chinese government would pick any of the current eight private technology companies for involvement in its project.
Readers have to understand that the system is still pretty much an ongoing pilot scheme.
No one can say who will get the ultimate responsibility for running the entire government’s Social Credit System.
With that said, it is rather hard to imagine that the Chinese government would not like to take the opportunity of extracting as much data as it could for its own Social Credit System program from the initial pilot programs.
And if it does go that route and the Chinese government find success in forcing people to accept the Social Credit System as the new normal then it will definitely result in all private platforms essentially acting in the capacity of spying agents for the Chinese government.
But then there is the possibility that many of these private companies may not have a choice when it comes to cooperating with the Chinese government.
No wise person would want to link to websites that talk about events in Tiananmen Square or post political opinions which the government could consider as dissent.
But now, the stakes are even higher.
Now, such actions could manage to directly damage any given citizen’s SCS score.
With that said, now get prepared for the real kicker:
The system will deploy algorithms which will take into consideration not only the person’s own actions but also by the actions of the person’s friends.
So if a person’s friend says something or does something “negative” online then that will have an effect on the person’s score.
And this will go beyond the person’s own interactions with the friend.
Another example would be if a friend of a given person posts something negative online then that will drag down the score of the person as well.
So the obvious question is why are people, in the millions, signing up for the program that really amounts to a little more than a publicly endorsed surveillance system by the government?
Well, there are a lot of reasons.
Some of them are darker in their nature.
A few of the people living in China fear the reprisal from Sesame Credit and/or the government if they don’t, willingly, put their hand up.
But the biggest reason is “rewards”.
That lure of rewards and other special privileges for all the people who work hard and prove to Sesame Credit that they are trustworthy.
That’s the reason this Social Credit System looks set to be adopted by the majority of the people living in China.
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