New figures recently revealed the Chinese government banned 23 million people from boarding trains and planes last year because they had low “social credit” scores, having spent too long gaming or they defaulted on a loan or didn't look after their aged aunt or jaywalked once too often.
What! You mean the computer just said no?
Yep. Another 290,000 people were stopped from getting senior management jobs because maybe they smoked on a train or sold dodgy products (Ok, so that is bad), but most had never broken a single law - they were simply "not good enough citizens.”
Harsh. So hit me with the social credit system spiel
China uses big data, artificial intelligence and recognition technology linked to 200 million surveillance cameras to tightly control its 1.4bn citizens, all of whom will have their own "trustworthy" score by next year. A DNA database is in the pipeline too, which until last week was being set up with the help of Americans.
Wait, what? The US is helping to DNA test unsuspecting Chinese?
Read this recent account in the New York Times of how China uses DNA testing to intern and re-educate the Muslim ethnic Uighurs in camps as they're deemed not Chinese enough. The US firm Thermo Fisher had supplied billions of dollars of forensic DNA testing kits and DNA mapping machines, while some dozy Yale prof called Kenneth Kidd also gave them the genetic know-how. (They only stopped after the NYT outed them.)
It sounds so Orwellian. Or Black Mirror-ish. What do the Chinese themselves think?
It's a totalitarian state, so they're not exactly complaining. If you've a good score you can jump the queue at hospitals and get access to cheaper loans. There's even an app that tells you if you're within a 500-metre radius of someone in debt (AKA "map of deadbeat debtors"), so you can report them if they seem "capable of paying their debts". Some people get off on that.
What about about foreign companies working in China?
Surely immune? Nope. Last April the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) demanded all 44 foreign airlines show Taiwan (a sovereign state) as part of China - threatening it would would "take disciplinary actions" if any failed to comply. They all did. Guess what? The system used to pressure them was part of the official social credit system.
Is there anything good about weaponising big data in this way?
Although the West is only interested in Orwellian headlines, it is curbing official corruption, enforcing court decisions and punishing "seat robbers" (calling all angry commuters, you have to watch this one). Remember fraud is rife in China.
But George Orwell was surely right - totalitarianism comes at the cost of freedom.
Indeed. China today proves that if you surrender power to the state, who knows what it’ll do with that power? It's not so different to surrendering your life's data to Facebook and Google. Who knows what they'll do with it or sell it to? Who even knew Facebook holds a patent on a financial credit score that takes into account the scores of your friends. It hasn’t done anything with it. Yet.
If I had a Facebook account, I'd delete it right now.