China is pioneering a system of social control that monitors your trustworthiness. India is a step away from something similar. Could “social credit” come to Britain too? Simon Wilson reports.
What is “social credit”?
In the same way that banks use credit scoring to assess potential customers, China’s communist government is developing a social-credit system that – somewhat ambitiously – aims to rate the trustworthiness of every citizen, business and legal entity. Currently, participation in the trial stage is voluntary, but the scheme is due to go live, and be mandatory, from 2020. The purpose is to increase transparency and help tackle corruption, as well as other social ills. But it is also intended to influence behaviour – and thus reinforce one-party control.
How will it work?
It might not. The technical challenges are vast, and pilot schemes have met with a level of criticism that’s unusual in China’s normally compliant state-run media – which suggests Beijing has been testing the waters before deciding how far to plunge in. But the core plan, as first outlined in 2014, is to create a social-credit file for every citizen that draws together a mass of data from public and private sources. The files will be searchable by fingerprints and other biometric characteristics, and the scores would be used to prioritise access to services (for the favoured) or withdraw access altogether (low-scorers will have reduced access to travel, loans and social security, for example). According to the government, the scheme will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under Heaven, while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”.
What counts as good behaviour?
High levels of educational attainment, praising the communist party on social media, and socially useful activities such as taking care of elderly family members, or helping the poor. Bad deeds that lose you points include drink-driving convictions or trying to bribe an official. Crucially, citizens will be judged by the company they keep, losing points for being friends with low-scorers. The idea, then, is to build a self-reinforcing system that doesn’t rely on constant surveillance, but rather on self-censorship and positive reinforcement. Many of the elements for the scheme are in place already: vast databases, intensive digital surveillance, systems of social reward and punishment and an entrenched culture of state paternalism.
Sounds quite sinister?
The idea is to maintain law and order by projecting a softer, more invisible authoritarianism – a blend of Big Brother with a hi-tech take on nudge theory. According to Samantha Hoffman, a consultant with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London who is researching social credit, Beijing’s core objective is to pre-empt instability that might threaten the party. “That’s why social credit ideally requires both coercive aspects and nicer aspects, like providing social services and solving real problems,” she says. “It’s all under the same Orwellian umbrella.” Some analysts argue Beijing is simply ahead of the curve – and that other societies are moving in the same direction.
Such as where?
India, for one. Critics say the government’s biometric ID system, known as Aadhaar, is morphing into the world’s most powerful state-surveillance tool. Originally launched nearly a decade ago, Aadhaar is a digital identity scheme that issues a 12-digit unique ID number to every Indian citizen – more than 1.3 billion people – and incorporates biometric data, including iris scans and fingerprints. The original aim was to overhaul India’s complex and leaky welfare system, but its reach has been expanded dramatically. Aadhaar is now central to the tax and criminal-justice systems –and also in an increasing number of public and private transactions from registering for a school to booking train tickets, opening a bank account or simply buying a mobile phone.
Why does this matter?
Because the aggregation of all this data potentially lets the government trace “the movements, social relationships, and interactions of residents so that their private lives are laid bare”, says Subhajit Basu, an academic specialising in information technology law. The fact that Aadhaar is now mandatory in so many contexts (albeit subject to an ongoing legal challenge in the Supreme Court) creates the potential for mass surveillance, or at least a “systemic mass invasion of privacy” that means the choice of what to make public or keep private will no longer belong to the individual citizen. Moreover, argues Basu, in an “emotionally charged democracy like India, the fear of backlash will stop individuals from expressing disagreement with the government; they will increasingly self-censor their speech and interactions”.
Could it happen here?
Some argue that the system of financial credit scoring that is common in everyday life in Western countries has ample potential to grow into a wider system of de-facto social credit scoring. In Germany, for example, the universal credit rating system known as Schufa already exerts extraordinary power. Anyone wishing to rent a house or borrow money, say, must produce their Schufa rating; the same goes for the standard Fico score in the US. And the increasingly prevalent practice of geo-scoring – lowering your rating if you live in a low-rent area, or if your neighbours have bad credit ratings – is not too dissimilar from the Chinese system of knocking points off for being friends with low scorers. “If we don’t do anything, then one day a corporation or a government institution will pull all the information from different data banks together and come up with a social credit score,” warns Gerd Gigerenzer of Berlin’s Max Planck Institute, who is working on a report on the topic for the German government. “And in the end, we will be in the same state as the Chinese.”