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Could your neighbour be spying on you?

Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty

January 29, 2019   3 mins

China’s emerging Social Credit System was my top story of 2018.

The purpose of the project is combine data from all sorts of different sources to create a trustworthiness score for every citizen – on which various state-sanctioned rewards and restrictions will depend.

It’s like a financial credit rating, but covering all sorts of other social (or anti-social) behaviours – hence the name.

Coverage of this development in the western media is heavy on adjectives such as ‘sinister’, ‘dystopian’ and, of course, ‘Orwellian’ – but, for reasons I explored in a previous UnPacked, the social credit concept appears to be popular with the Chinese public.

In a Bloomberg piece entitled ‘Why Big Brother Doesn’t Bother Most Chinese’, Adam Minter provides an astonishing example of social credit technology in action:

“In one Chinese city, the local court system recently launched a smartphone-based map that displays the location and identity of anyone within 500 meters who’s landed on a government creditworthiness blacklist. Worried the person seated next to you at Starbucks might not have paid a court-approved fine? The Deadbeat Map, as it’s known, provides pinpoint confirmation, the ability to share that information via social media and — if so inclined — a reporting function to notify the authorities.”

The Deadbeat Map and other pilot projects are being tested by various agencies, cities and companies, the most successful of which will be incorporated into the as yet unlaunched national system:

“Today there are more than 40 social-credit systems operating across China. Some are private: Sesame Credit, a subsidiary of Alibaba, collects and aggregates data generated on Alibaba services, such as a customer’s payment history and record of time and money spent online, then devises a score used to extend credit and other benefits. Others are run by the government, such as a national list of individuals who have defaulted on court judgments. “

Minter argues that “it’s difficult to imagine that there’s any good use for the Deadbeat Map, beyond public shaming and cruel entertainment”. But when did those things ever hold back the growth of social media – whether in China or the West?

As mentioned, there are reasons why Chinese society is receptive to social credit systems:

“…a whopping 76 percent of survey participants said that ‘mutual mistrust between citizens’ is a problem in Chinese society. Social-credit systems are viewed as a means of bridging that trust gap.”

Then again, does anybody anywhere need a legitimate excuse to poke their noses into other people’s business? If the opportunity presents itself then most people will make use of it.

The digital age presents us with many such opportunities. For instance, Google Earth is a hugely impressive source of aerial and satellite photography, allowing you to explore the remotest corners of the planet from the comfort of your sofa. But it also allows you to peer into your neighbours’ back gardens. Google Earth may provide breathtaking views of the Himalayas and sophisticated 3D mapping of cities from New York to Venice, but I suspect that a lot of people use the site to, er, keep an eye on goings-on rather closer to home.

Now imagine if there were a website in your country that allowed users to peer into the financial affairs of friends, family and workmates. Would privacy-minded Westerners refuse to use it on principle? Or would they comb through every available detail? I think we all know the answer to that one.

To be clear, the purpose of the Chinese state in developing its Social Credit System is not to cater to the country’s nosey neighbours; it is primarily intended as a powerful instrument of social control.

Nevertheless, in sharing at least some of the information it gathers on its people with its people, the government is giving them a stake in their own surveillance. Not doing so was Big Brother’s big mistake in Nineteen Eighty-Four. If he hadn’t kept all the gossip to himself, he could have saved himself – and the Ministry of Love – a lot of bother.

Western countries may have stronger privacy laws, but expect ‘open source Orwellianism’ to be the means by which public and private sector organisations push social credit and other intrusive technologies deeper into our lives.

If we believe we have more to gain from us knowing about other people’s lives than we have to lose from them knowing about ours, then we will consent to it.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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