Friday, December 18, 2015

Social Credit in China

The most recent Extra Credits video is all about "Sesame Credit", the early stages of a system being set up in China to track the "social credit" of each individual. The Extra Credit folks were pretty worried about where such a thing might lead, and after doing a bit of poking around the Internet, so am I.
This isn't the first time I've heard of Sesame Credit. There was a Marketplace story about it back in January, referencing this New York Times story. But those stories made it sound like Sesame Credit was simply a credit score for China, similar to the credit rating system we have here in the USA. The main difference was that Alibaba (China's biggest e-commerce company) would be generating the scores based on their data, rather than the credit bureau system that the USA uses. Honestly, it sounded pretty good to me at the time, considering what a pain our credit score system can be, particularly if they make a mistake with your data.

But the Extra Credits video paints a picture of Sesame Credit as a whole lot more than just a credit score. It would track whether you posted things to social media that toe the party line, or things that embarrass the government. You'd get more points for buying Chinese-owned products than foreign ones. And your score would be affected by other people in your social network, so you'd have incentive to put pressure on them to "act right" to improve their scores.

Sesame Credit isn't the end-game, but rather one of eight pilot projects being watched by the government (according to this BBC article). By 2020, the Chinese government plans to use what it learns from those pilot projects and develop a mandatory, country-wide social credit system. So I figured I'd better look at the source, to see what's really going on.

Here's what the Chinese government released about this social credit system back in 2014. I admit, I didn't read that entire thing, because it's long and worded in government-propaganda-speak. I did skim through it, though, and I see plenty in there to confirm what the Extra Credits video was saying. Here's a few:

  • Under "Guiding Ideology" we see "...the construction of sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and judicial credibility." A list of "focus areas" follows which covers pretty much everything in life. Just a few samples: "finance", "e-commerce", "advertising", "health care, hygiene, and birth control", "culture, sports, and tourism", "public security", "judicial law enforcement". This isn't a "credit score" as we're used to thinking of it in the USA, focused almost entirely on finances...this score covers everything you do.
  • Section V(1) is titled "Build mechanisms to incentivise trust-keeping and punish trust-breaking" - meaning the system rewards staying in line and has punishment for those who don't. 
  • Also in Section V(1), there's this bit: "Establish rewarded reporting systems for acts of breach of trust. Realistically implement rewards for reporting individuals, and protect the lawful rights and interests of reporting individuals." Translation: Encourage people to blow the whistle on their neighbors.

That's some frightening stuff, right out of stories about informants reporting to the secret police in authoritarian societies. But this is worse, because you don't need the secret police. Everyone will be watching all the time through this social credit score system. And anyone in the system (that is, everyone, since this will be mandatory) will be affected by the people they know, so peer pressure is going to nudge people into line.

The system isn't in place yet, and maybe it won't turn out to be the worst-case scenario. I certainly hope that's the case. The potential is there, though, for some really dangerous limitations on people's freedom to think and act. Worth thinking about, and worth being vigilant against similar things that could happen closer to home.

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