A Tech Security Expert Described China's New Social Credit System As "Big Brother Out Of Control"  

Bailey Benningfield
16 items

The United States has a long-established credit system based on mortgage and loan repayment. U.S. citizens' scores are determined largely on financial accountability. But what would it look like if a social element were incorporated? In what eerily resembles the Black Mirror episode "Nosedive," China is in the process of rolling out a new credit system, but instead of capital, it relies heavily on behavior.

Introduced in 2014, China plans to assign everyone a social credit score that will take into account a wide variety of actions, including everything from jaywalking to taking care of family members to speaking out against the government. People with high scores receive rewards such as upscale hotel accommodations and even healthcare privileges, while the state places restrictions on travel, school, and housing options for those with lower scores. The People's Republic of China is able to gather substantial amounts of data on its citizens by partnering with private banking, media, and retail conglomerates such as Alibaba. While Chinese officials say their aim is to establish standards of accountability and trust, many compare the system to George Orwell's 1984, where Big Brother sees and controls all.

The System Has Blocked Chinese... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list A Tech Security Expert Described China's New Social Credit System As "Big Brother Out Of Control"
Photo: Julian Herzog/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0
The System Has Blocked Chinese Citizens From Taking 11.14 Million Flights And 4.25 Million Train Trips

Any number of restrictions as established by the Chinese government could land citizens on a list of people banned from travel. According to the Chinese publication Global Times, the system, which has only been instituted on a limited basis, has already prevented over 11 million people from flying and over 4 million people from traveling by train. Foreign Policy notes, however, that Global Times may have exaggerated those numbers. The People's Party owns the paper, and it has a heavily nationalistic slant. Chinese writer and international affairs commentator Michael Anti said that GT is essentially China's Fox News - the public can't trust everything they print, as it heavily favors the government.

Many cities have established local credit systems with their own unique list of behaviors deemed "bad." In Shanghai, failing to visit your parents often enough may lead to a strike on your social credit score. Other infractions include parking illegally, failing to apologize, jaywalking, and falsifying information on government documents.

Chinese officials argue in favor of travel restrictions. They say it sets and enforces a standard for behavior in Chinese citizens. China's former deputy director of the State Council's development research center says:

If we don't increase the cost of being discredited, we are encouraging discredited people to keep at it. That destroys the whole standard.

Private Corporations Pioneered... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list A Tech Security Expert Described China's New Social Credit System As "Big Brother Out Of Control"
Photo: S3studio/Contributor/Getty Images News
Private Corporations Pioneered Social Credit Scores By Collecting Massive Amounts Of Data

Zhima Credit, which is run by massive Chinese retail corporation Alibaba, is a private organization that measures social credit. Alibaba also owns an extremely popular app in China called Alipay. Through Alipay, you can pay for your groceries, ride shares, car insurance, doctor's appointments, and utility bills, just to name a few. Alipay also has access to Chinese citizens' national ID, driver's license, and license plate numbers among other personal information. Because the same corporation owns Zhima Credit, it has access to all of that data.

The Chinese government has collaborated with private companies like Zhima Credit to collect and share information about citizens. For instance, Zhima Credit, and therefore Alipay, has access to the government's blacklist called the "List of Dishonest People." Should the state place someone on the list, the resulting effect on the individual's Zhima and social credit scores can be devastating: their Zhima Credit score will immediately drop. Their friends may notice the decline, and because part of the credit score formula depends on how high one's friends' scores are, they may unfriend their lower-scoring acquaintance. The app then notices that the blacklisted friend has been deleted, which further drops the person's credit score.

While the government doesn't have access to Zhima Credit's social data, and participating in private credit systems is voluntary, the state can seriously impact those private scores. For instance, the government punished 1.21 million people who defaulted on court fines through Zhima Credit - they opened their Alipay app to discover their scores had plummeted overnight.


Having A High Score Earns You Better Access To Healthcare

Zhima Credit, owned by Chinese retail giant Alibaba, is giving citizens with credit scores of 650 or above a 1,000-yuan ($146) credit to a Shanghai hospital. Ten more Chinese hospitals plan to adopt the policy as of June 2018. Because patients don't have to stand in line to pay for their visit, it also decreases their wait time.

The government is additionally using the social credit system to blacklist patients who inflict violence on doctors - which is a prevalent issue in China due to weak malpractice laws - as well as alleged medical practitioners running unregulated plastic surgery clinics.

Unlike ‘Black Mirror,’ The Sys... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list A Tech Security Expert Described China's New Social Credit System As "Big Brother Out Of Control"
Photo: Black Mirror/Netflix
Unlike ‘Black Mirror,’ The System Isn’t Based On Individuals' Judgments, But Rather On State And Corporate Power

In the Black Mirror episode "Nosedive," characters receive scores from other characters, not from a government entity. What's significant about China's social credit system is that the state is in charge of moral judgments. In a country without traditional credit scores established by paying loans and mortgages on time, China has turned to alternative ways to establish individuals' trustworthiness. 

Although China has had monitoring systems in place for decades - citizens' dang'an files detailed their personal record and their hukou files provided a household record - technology has simplified sharing blacklists among government departments. The state is compiling this information, which it has traditionally used to monitor employment history and migration, faster and more efficiently than ever.