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China’s government harnesses big data for citizen rating system

 

BEIJING — Imagine a world where an authoritarian government monitors everything you do, amasses huge amounts of data on nearly every interaction you have and awards you a score that measures how “trustworthy” you are.

In this world, anything from defaulting on a loan to criticizing the ruling party, from running a red light to failing to care for your parents properly could cause you to lose points.

And in this world, your score becomes the ultimate truth of who you are — determining whether you can borrow money, get your children into the best schools or travel abroad; whether you get a room in a fancy hotel, a seat in a top restaurant — or even get a date.

This is not the dystopian superstate of Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” in which all-knowing police stop crime before it happens. But it could be China by 2020.

It is the scenario contained in China’s ambitious plans to develop a far-reaching social credit system, a plan that the Communist Party hopes will build a culture of “sincerity” and a “harmonious socialist society” where “keeping trust is glorious.”

A high-level policy document released in September listed the sanctions that could be imposed on any person or company deemed to have fallen short. The overriding principle: “If trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere.”

A whole range of privileges would be denied, while people and companies breaking social trust would be subject to expanded daily supervision and random inspections.

The ambition is to collect every scrap of information available online about China’s companies and citizens in a single place — and then assign each of them a score based on their political, commercial, social and legal “credit.”

The government hasn’t announced how the plan will work — for example, how scores will be compiled and qualities weighted against one another. But the idea is that good behavior will be rewarded and bad behavior punished, with the Communist Party acting as the ultimate judge.

This is what China calls “Internet Plus” and critics call a 21st-century police state.

Harnessing the power of big data and the ubiquity of smartphones, e-commerce and social media in a society where 700 million people live large parts of their lives online, the plan will also vacuum up court, police, banking, tax and employment records. Doctors, teachers, local governments and businesses could additionally be scored by citizens for their professionalism and probity.

“China is moving towards a totalitarian society, where the government controls and affects individuals’ private lives,” said Beijing-based novelist and social commentator Murong Xuecun. “This is like Big Brother, who has all your information and can harm you in any way he wants.”

At the heart of the social credit system is an attempt to control China’s vast, anarchic and poorly regulated market economy, to punish companies selling poisoned food or phony medicine, to expose doctors taking bribes and uncover con men preying on the vulnerable.

“Fraud has become ever more common in society,” Lian Weiliang, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s main economic planning agency, said in April. “Swindlers have to pay a price.”

Yet in Communist China, the plans inevitably take on an authoritarian aspect: This is not just about regulating the economy, but also about creating a socialist utopia under the Communist Party’s benevolent guidance.

“A huge part of Chinese political theater is to claim that there is an idealized future, a utopia to head towards,” said Rogier Creemers, a professor of law and governance at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

“Now, after half a century of Leninism, and with technological developments that allow for the vast collection and processing of information, there is much less distance between the loftiness of the party’s ambition and its hypothetical capability of actually doing something,” he said.

Assigning China’s people a social credit rating that weighs up and scores every aspect of their behavior would not only be a gigantic technological challenge but thoroughly subjective — and could be extremely unpopular.

“From a technological feasibility question to a political feasibility question, to actually get to a score, to roll this out across a population of 1.3 billion, that would be a huge challenge,” Creemers said.

The Communist Party may be obsessed with control, but it is sensitive to public opinion, and authorities were forced to backtrack when a pilot project in southern China in 2010 provoked a backlash.

Some of the penalties showed the party’s desire to regulate its citizens’ private lives — participating in anything deemed to be a cult or failing to care for elderly relatives incurred a 50-point penalty. Other penalties reflected the party’s obsession with maintaining public order and crushing any challenge to its authority — causing a “disturbance” that blocks party or government offices meant 50 points off; using the Internet to falsely accuse others resulted in a 100-point deduction. Winning a “national honor” — such as being classified as a model citizen or worker — added 100 points to someone’s score.

This article was originally published on triblive.com and can be viewed in full here

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