When Big Brother

meets Big Data

By PIERRE DU PASQUIER | November 19, 2019

Cover illustration – Chinese in the metro during rush hour with a gauge above them indicating their social score. 

The Origins: a refresher 

As probably the most ambitious project of social engineering since the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong between 1966 and 1976, the Social Credit system was introduced by the chief administrative authority of the People’s Republic of China in June 2014. According to the Government, the objectives of this initiative are four-fold: “honesty in government affairs, commercial integrity, societal integrity and a credible justice” (Source). The system took roots from the viral Supreme People’s Court of China’s blacklist of debtors in which more than thirty thousand names were registered in 2013. Two years later, the People’s Bank of China gave a licence to eight companies to start building prototypes of social credit systems. Among these was the Sesame Credit developed by one of Alibaba’s daughter companies and consisted of a data collection on consumers’ behaviour (their loyalty towards the brand, their interactions on social media and their online purchases) in order to form a ranking system.  Although the trial of social credit systems proved to be successful, the public administration showed grievances as to the private ownership of the system notably with regards to potential conflict of interests. As a result, in 2017, the central government took all licences from private companies, stopped granting new ones, and started to monitor the progress of the system itself. Since 2014, numerous pilots were launched all over China in small villages from the inland (e.g: Yangqiao) to the megalopolis like Shanghai where the Honest Shanghai app met with tremendous success. 

 

Numbers: 

The system operates as follows: the citizens begin with 1,000 points which will change depending on their actions inside the society. The grading scheme oscillates between 1300 and 600 points, the latter being the lowest possible score. With 1300 points, a citizen has reached the maximum amount of points because he/she engaged in charity work, took care of elderly or family members, donated blood or committed a heroic act. In the same way as with the Stakhanovite movement in the USSR, citizens with high scores will be rewarded with, among other things, a priority for school admissions and employment, shorter waiting times in hospitals and easier access to cash loans and consumer credits.  Contrastingly, if a citizen posts anti-government messages on social media, commits traffic offenses such as drunk driving and jaywalking or cheats in online games will see his score tumble down and thus will be treated as a second-class citizen. Punishments due to a bad behaviour include denials of licences, permits and access to some social services, exclusions from booking flights or high-speed train tickets and public shaming. 

The Mercator Institute for China Studies, the biggest European think-tank with an exclusive focus on China, conducted a study on the credit system in China and probed the Chinese for their opinion on the implementation of the system in their country. Among the results, one number was noticeable: 80 percent of respondents either somewhat approved or strongly approved of social credit systems while only 1 percent perceived it as detrimental to society. Although, the pilots currently in place have proven to be efficient as evidenced in an article from The Time. Indeed, after being labelled as bad citizens, five million individuals were barred from high-speed trains and 17 million from flights (Source). Lastly, the concretization of the system came hand-in-hand with an increase in the amount of surveillance cameras all over the country, cumulating to more than 9 million units. 

 

SCS in the West and Amsterdam?

Amsterdam rewards itself for being the host to one of the oldest Chinese neighbourhoods near the Nieuwmarkt square, but what if the Chinese Social Credit System was part-and-parcel of Amsterdam? After all, for a long time, CCTV cameras have been cropping up in many of the European megalopolis, including Amsterdam, which did not seem to raise the alarm of western public opinion as much as the SCS. Although at first glance, the project might clash with western democratic values, aren’t global cities like Amsterdam not close from the Chinese reality?

Some would answer the question in the affirmative using the example of the credit score in the United States of America which helps banks and lenders evaluate the creditworthiness of an individual using credit reports. In this way, lenders can determine the potential risks and mitigate their losses due to bad debt. Loaners receive a score from 0 to 3 and much like with the social credit system, a high or a low score will lead to a different outcome up to being blacklisted from every bank in the country. What is more, Airbnb and Booking.com, who integrate a vast majority of home rental offers on their respective websites, can ban anyone from their platform greatly affecting hosts as well as consumers’ ability to find accommodation. The same goes for the popular app, Uber, on which drivers are given grades according to a variety of factors. If their scores are low, it has great repercussions on their job since consumers will be less likely to want to be chauffeured by them. An additional example which resembles SCS’s characteristics are the smartphones’ apps that can trail the locations (Google Map), purchases (Ebay), health (HeadSpace) and even to some degree, the online behaviour for purposes the consumers are not always aware of. 

Although there is a system similar to China’s Social Credit in place in the USA, the Chinese model still differs in one way: the judicial system is included in the process and by means of the national court rather than private companies, can impose all sorts of punishments. 

Now, zooming in to the case of Amsterdam, it appears the national authorities have no plans to implement a twin version of the SCS. However, with the increasing digitisation of societies, smart cities are emerging in the Netherlands compiling more and more characteristics of tomorrow’s China. Recently, a virtual traffic manager was installed in the capital city to bring more fluid traffic flows through an app shared by every motorist using algorithms. Another case illustrating the rise of data-driven control apps was the collection  of Facebook data from unconsentingyouth to reduce noise pollution in 2015 (Source). The DigiD, or digital identity, is a final case in point. When seeking for study loans or paying waterboard taxes, one must provide the loan provider or the water supply’s websites with his/her DigiD details. To a certain degree, it is another example of the principles of autonomy and privacy being imperilled as one must fill his/her personal information such as the Burgerservicenumber (BSN), date of birth, postal code, house number and other personal data in order to apply for a DigiD account. 

Despite this frightening picture of the Social Credit System in China and its softer versions in western societies and Amsterdam, alternative systems of ranking emphasising different objectives to ameliorate our societies, should be considered. For instance, to tackle the green challenge the planet is currently facing, one solution could be to entitle citizens with discounts or incentives from the government when planting a tree each year. In addition, citizens travelling more by public transport than with private vehicles during peak hours would see their scores skyrocket and enjoy the associated benefits.  

From a western viewpoint, the system in place in China may look very much like one of Orwell’s dystopian stories or the famous episode Nosedive from the show Black Mirror. It defines the boundaries of a society where citizens are subject to a system of good and bad points, are rewarded if they denunciate their neighbours because of bad behaviour, are monitored via an omnipresent network of cameras and the list goes on. Amsterdam might not be so prone to the arrival of the Chinese social credit system but with the phenomenon of increasing digitalization, individuals in western cities such as Amsterdam are increasingly exposed to a lack of personal data protection, manipulation of human behaviour and function creep.

Photo by t.app - What would a camera identify from people walking in Amsterdam if the SCS was introduced?
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