Numbers, in the modern world, give us privilege. They matter to you, and they matter to me.
For instance, I have a lengthy financial history whose data is measured by various credit bureaus. With my strong credit, I can be assured of having access to any cash I might need. My past behavior has demonstrated that I am financially responsible and can be trusted.
When I or other of my family members go to the airport, we can breeze through the security line or customs since we all have Pre-TSA authorization as well as Global Entry. The reason we have these is that we went through a lengthy process of scrutiny and interviews that demonstrated we aren’t criminals, we aren’t terrorists, and our behavior has been peaceful toward society at large. Numbers make this trust possible.
And when I’m driving a car across one of the bridges here in the Bay Area, my FastTrak assures the device at the tool entrance that I’m legit. I don’t have to pause. I don’t have to fumble for change. The data associated with me – – more specifically, the FasTrak device with me – – make it possible.
These are all elements of the modern world, in which convenience has become king.
However, I have recently learned about a far more ominous development in China known as the Social Credit Score which, upon hearing of it, I instantly found shocking, offensive, and reprehensible. (At first I thought it was just a hypothetical concept, or even a joke, but it’s real). It takes the entire notion of using numbers associated with humans to a level that makes my libertarian instincts quake with anger.
As China’s elite State Council explains it, this so-called social credit will “forge a public opinion environment that trust-keeping is glorious“, warning that the “new system will reward those who report acts of breach of trust“.
Gone are the days, such as in 1980s East Germany or 1960s China, in which neighbors would report on neighbors and family members would rat out family members to the state. There’s no need for this kind of person-based amateur espionage. Instead, the state can monitor, analyze, and track information about every citizen. Where they go. What they buy. Who they see. What they do. And, ultimately, use this information as a bludgeon to control the citizenry.
As stated in Wired, “A national database will merge a wide variety of information on every citizen, assessing whether taxes and traffic tickets have been paid, whether academic degrees have been rightly earned and even, it seems, whether females have been instructed to take birth control.” Within five years, the government’s mandatory system will rank everyone within China’s borders.
Perhaps you’re wondering how this is possible, particularly considering that China packs nearly four times as many people in its borders in a country about the size of the U.S. (and keep in mind that the vast majority of China is pretty much empty land). My opinion is there are several elements to it besides, obviously, the long cultural history of individual subjugation to “authority”.
First off, companies in China are required to make all their data – – every bit of it – – freely available to the nice people in China’s central government. There’s no ACLU interference. There are no protests. If you have data, it belongs to the government. End of story, comrade.
Second, $5.5 trillion in mobile payments are made every year in China. (In contrast, the US mobile payments market in 2016 was worth roughly $112 billion.) As such, there is a mountain of information on every individual’s day to day habits. That guy bought a book about depression. That lady bought a vibrator. That guy is suddenly getting gas far away from where he normally does. And so forth.
But it keeps going farther, because there are legions on individuals that are able to assign data to you based not just on purchasings or financial dealings but on your personal behavior.
As Wired states it: “Taking care of elderly family members earned you 50 points. Helping the poor merited 10 points. Helping the poor in a way that was reported by the media: 15. A drunk driving conviction meant the loss of 50 points, as did bribing an official. After the points were tallied up, citizens were assigned grades of A, B, C, or D. Grade A citizens would be given priority for school admissions and employment, while D citizens would be denied licenses, permits, and access to some social services.”
One person visiting China to explore this new scoring system experienced it firsthand, because as a newcomer, he had a very low score. As such, he found himself locked out of many basic functions in everyday living: “A scan of a bike’s QR code revealed a four-digit number that unlocked the back wheel, and a ride across town cost roughly 15 cents. Because of my middling score, however, I had to pay a $30 deposit before I could scan my first bike. Nor could I get deposit-free hotel stays or GoPro rentals, or free umbrella rentals. I belonged to the digital underclass.”
Thus, the single number that each and every citizen has is taking on tremendous importance and, as you could easily surmise, represents an important status symbol. (Random anecdote: I experienced this in a way myself recently, since I cancelled one of my credit cards. The customer service representative on the phone, who clearly was trained to retain these accounts, starting going on and on about how huge my credit score was, and how he had never seen one so big. The sexual undertones were pretty hilarious, but I managed to cancel the card anyway, in spite of having to chop off my big swinging line of credit).
The Social Credit Score project, carefully planned and implemented by the ominous-sounding Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, is slated to be utterly complete and comprehensive by 2020 (an appropriate number, considering how it will give the authorities perfect vision into the lives of its citizenry). It is already warping social mores, especially since your score is directly affected by the company you keep. Thus, making and keeping friends is partly influenced by the score you’ve earned.
One Chinese citizen remarked: “They will check what kind of friends you have,” she said. “If your friends are all high-score people, it’s good for you. If you have some bad-credit people as friends, it’s not nice.”
I would guess that the day will come that the ultimate status symbol will be to not have any score at all. Just as in Orwell’s 1984, in which the highest echelon of officials could actually turn off their viewing monitors in their homes, being able to tell the government to shove it will be the most supreme of privileges.
I’m glad that, for the moment, we people outside the Chinese dictatorship still have at least a modicum of privacy. The poor souls being born into that country will have no idea just what a dystopian insane asylum they are going to live in.
The way you are being monitored, even here in the U.S., is creeping deeper into your life every day. At a minimum, keep an awareness of it. I fear that, in the end, the billion plus people in China are going to find themselves to be living hosts to a central, data-sucking parasite in the form of their government. The entire population is giving up their souls in exchange for the perception of an easier life.