“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them
together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
— George Orwell, “1984”
China’s rise from a nation of poverty to the world’s second largest economy has been meteoric. As a result, in just a few decades, more than 850 million people have been lifted out of poverty. But the newfound wealth of the multitudes created a new problem. For the vast numbers of Chinese suddenly able to access credit, take out loans and obtain charge cards, there was no system in place to monitor their credit history.
To address the issue and help answer the greater question of who among its citizens is and isn’t trustworthy, the Chinese government created a nationwide system that it says will permit “the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven, while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.” Beijing engaged eight companies to develop its Social Credit System (SCS). The system, however, does much more than simply keep track of one’s spending and bill-paying habits — the SCS also monitors the social and personal behaviors of China’s 1.4 billion citizens. Social media, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and other technologies are all being used to monitor, rate and even shame wayward citizens.
When the system is fully in place in 2020, everyone in China will receive a social credit score. An individual’s SCS can fluctuate based on all sorts of behaviors. Transgressions — both small and large — can earn one a spot on a “List of Untrustworthy Persons.” Failing to pay a bill on time; criticizing the government; visiting verboten websites; even jaywalking or excessive video-gaming can get one blacklisted. If your score gets too low, you can be banned from buying a plane ticket, renting a home or accessing the internet.
Even associating with a blacklisted person can get you in trouble. A phone call to a blacklisted individual can be overridden with a siren and recorded message saying, “Warning, this person is on the blacklist. Be careful and urge them to repay their debts.” Of course, there’s also a list of reliable citizens. “The Red List” includes those who stay out of trouble and maintain expected social standards.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of Chinese citizens say they either partially or fully approve of the scoring system. Would you endanger your score by saying otherwise? But dissenters worry the SCS is yet another way for Beijing to track and punish those deemed insufficiently loyal to the Communist Party of China. George Orwell’s “1984” character Agent O’Brien surely would approve of this dystopian method of control.
And if you think Big Brother-style oversight can’t happen here, guess again. It already is. The only difference is here those controls aren’t being manipulated by the government, but by corporations and businesses intent on tracking your spending, saving, social, physical and medical habits.
In an article published Monday, Fast Company, an American magazine focused on technology and business issues, described how a parallel public-sector structure is developing in the U.S. It’s a chilling read.
According to Fast Company, New York’s State Department of Financial Services has determined life insurance companies may now “base premiums on what they find in your social media posts.” For example, if you told your insurance company you were a nonsmoker but that photograph you posted to Facebook shows you with a cigar in hand, you could have your premiums adjusted. How long before we are called on the carpet by doctors or employers questioning the amount of booze or fatty foods we purchased on vacation?
There are plenty of behavior-detecting devices already available to businesses. One, called Patron Scan, helps restaurants and bars identify problem customers. Users of the scanning tool can share a list of banned patrons. In effect, being kicked out of one bar could get you banned from every bar in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada that uses the product. And ride-sharing and private accommodation-sharing businesses all have similar apps that allow them to disable your accounts.
Remember the early days of the internet? The promise of unlimited access to information, knowledge and communications was going to open even the most closed-off societies. Who ever dreamed that instead of going in that direction, the internet is being harnessed by authoritarian governments to control and spy on their own citizens. And for those of us who live in free and open societies, Orwell was just a bit off. It’s not Big Brother watching us — it’s Big Business.
— Robin Beres