Government Involvement in Ethics
Imagine a world where many of your daily activities were constantly monitored and evaluated: what you buy at the shops and online, where you are at any given time, who your friends are and how you interact with them, how many hours you spend watching a certain type of content or playing video games, and what bills and taxes you pay or rather not pay. It's not hard to picture, because most of that already happens in our world, thanks to data-collecting companies like Google and Facebook, or health-tracking apps such as Fitbit. But now imagine a system where all these behaviors are rated as either positive or negative and distilled into a single number, according to rules set by the government. That final number would create your citizen score and it would tell everyone whether you were trustworthy or not. Plus, your rating would be publicly ranked against that of the entire population and used to determine your eligibility for a mortgage or a job, where your children can go to school or whether you'd be allowed to travel or not. It sounds a bit like a dark, dystopian sci-fi movie scenario. Well this very same scenario is about to become reality by 2020 in China, through a program called the Social Credit System.
In order to understand how this new system will work and how it will affect Chinese people, one must start with the reasons the Chinese government has presented and used as support for the unorthodox idea, rationalizing why such a system is needed in the country. Due to the Cultural Revolution, where friends and family members were deliberately pitted against each other and millions of Chinese were killed, people in China still often expect to be cheated or to get in trouble even if they are innocent. Scams and frauds — including dating scams — targeting individuals and families are reported daily on Chinese news programs, which contributes to a general mood of disquietude, so the stated purpose of the social credit system is to help Chinese people trust each other again. The social credit system is also meant to provide an answer to the problem of lack of trust on the Chinese market. The fact is that China’s economic growth has outpaced its ability to create and police institutions that promote trust between citizens and businesses. Proponents argue that it will help eliminate problems such as food safety issues, cheating, and counterfeit goods. The government claims its aim is to enhance trust and social stability by creating a “culture of sincerity” in what it calls an attempt to promote “trustworthiness” in its economy and society.
The social credit system is considered as a form of mass surveillance which uses big data analysis technology. Website operators would mine the traces of data that users exchange with websites and derive a full social profile, including location, friends, health records, insurance, private messages, financial position, gaming duration, smart home statistics, preferred newspapers, shopping history, and dating behavior. When evaluating individuals, five main factors are said to be considered. The first is credit history. For example, does the citizen pay their electricity or phone bill on time? Next is fulfillment capacity, which is defined as a user's ability to fulfill his/her contract obligations. The third factor is personal characteristics, verifying personal information such as someone's mobile phone number and address. The fourth category, behavior and preference, is the most controversial one. Under this system, something as innocuous as a person's shopping habits become a measure of character. Frivolously spending your money, playing too many video games, spreading “fake news”, jaywalking or behaving unfriendly on social media can all hurt your social score. Friends matter, too. The fifth category is interpersonal relationships. A person's own score will be affected by what their online friends say and do, beyond their own contact with them. If someone they are connected to online posts a negative comment, their own score might also be dragged down.
Automated algorithms are used to structure the collected data, based on government rules. Depending on their score bracket, residents hold a grade ranging from A+++ to D. On one hand, triple As are rewarded with perks such as being able to rent public bikes without paying a deposit, receiving a $50 heating discount every winter, having easier access to loans and jobs and being prioritized during bureaucratic paperwork. On the other hand, the immediate negative consequences for a low score, or being associated to someone with a low score, ranges from lower internet speed to being denied access to certain jobs, loans and visas. People have already faced various punishments for violating social protocols. The system has been used to block more than nine million people with "low scores" from purchasing domestic flights. While still in the preliminary stages, the system has been used to ban people and their children from certain schools, prevent low scorers from renting hotels, using credit cards, and blacklist individuals from being able to procure employment.
Companies are also included in the gauntlet of social credit. They can remain in good standing if they pay taxes on time and avoid fines for things such as substandard or unsanitary products, a sore point for Chinese people, who tend to mistrust firms and service providers due to frequent scams and food safety scandals. High-scoring businesses pass through fewer hoops in public tenders and get better loan conditions.
It is unclear what technology will be used in the fully implemented system as no one knows exactly how the integrated nationwide social credit system would work, but the Chinese government has rolled out around three dozen pilot systems in cities across the country with the most successful one being in the city of Rongcheng. The reason why Rongcheng has the most successful social credit system so far is that the community has embraced it and that has happened because the scheme basically only deducts points for breaking the law. It is precise in its punishment and generous in its rewards. Anything that influences your points needs to be backed by official facts with official documents which reduces subjectivity and limits penalties to mainly breaking laws and regulations, while committing a heroic act, helping your family in unusual tough circumstances or donating to charity could boost your score. Here the social credit system works as a tool, which is meant to enforce laws more effectively by getting people to self-police their behavior. According to Chinese officials and researchers, it’s the best example of the system working as intended but those intentions may not be as straightforward as they like to claim.
A completely different example of government surveillance of its citizens is taking place in the Xinjiang province, home of the Uyghur Muslim minority, whose everyday life has also been closely monitored for years using surveillance apps, voice printing, and facial recognition cameras. The government has set up re-education camps in Xinjiang for the local people to improve their compliance and it is estimated that around one million Uyghurs have been detained. People in the re-education camps are usually closely watched by guards and are not allowed to contact people outside the facilities, including family and friends. The education involves daily indoctrination into Communist ideology and attempts at eradicating minority culture, language and religion
WRITTEN BY MARTIN ZAVRL FOR BESA
PLEASE DIRECT ANY INQUIRY TO AS.BESA@UNIBOCCONI.IT