China's plan to rate trustworthiness of citizens sparks fear

Internet start-up employees working in a cafe in Beijing. The Chinese government's plan to rate people and businesses is officially aimed at fighting fraud, but critics say accumulating so much data on individuals is a move towards a totalitarian soc
Internet start-up employees working in a cafe in Beijing. The Chinese government's plan to rate people and businesses is officially aimed at fighting fraud, but critics say accumulating so much data on individuals is a move towards a totalitarian society. Other concerns include how a centralised system would be attractive and vulnerable to hackers.PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

Social credit system of amassing online data to give score like being in police state, say critics

BEIJING • Imagine a world where an authoritarian government monitors everything you do, amasses huge amounts of data on almost every interaction you make, and awards you a single score that measures how "trustworthy" you are.

In this world, anything from defaulting on a loan to criticising 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 just 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 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".

'BIG BROTHER' THREAT

This is like Big Brother, who has all your information and can harm you in any way he wants.

MR MURONG XUECUN, Beijing-based novelist and social commentator.

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 also 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 has not announced exactly how the plan will work - for example, how scores will be compiled and different qualities weighted against one another.

But the idea is that good behaviour will be rewarded and bad behaviour punished, with the Communist Party acting as the ultimate judge.

This is what China calls "Internet Plus," but 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," Mr 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 China, the plans inevitably take on an authoritarian aspect: This is not just about regulating the economy, but also about creating a new socialist utopia under the Communist Party's guidance.

"A huge part of Chinese political theatre is to claim that there is an idealised future, a utopia to head towards," said Professor 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.

But the narrowing of that distance raises expectations, says Prof Creemers, who adds that the party could be biting off more than it can chew. Assigning all of China's people a social credit rating that weighs up and scores every aspect of their behaviour would not only be a gigantic technological challenge but also thoroughly subjective - and could be extremely unpopular.

"From a technological feasibility question to a political feasibility question, to roll this out across a population of 1.3 billion, that would be a huge challenge," he said.

Mr William Glass, a threat intelligence analyst at cyber security expert FireEye, says a centralised system would be both vulnerable and immensely attractive to hackers.

"There is a big market for this stuff, and as soon as this system sets up, there is great incentive for cyber criminals and even state- backed actors to go in, whether to steal information or alter it," he said.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2016, with the headline 'China's plan to rate trustworthiness of citizens sparks fear'. Print Edition | Subscribe