A society where individuals are under round-the-clock surveillance. You gain or lose “social credit” according to your behaviour, actions and even thoughts.
It sounds like an episode of Black Mirror or the 21st Century version of Orwell’s 1984 but it’s real. It’s a mandatory ranking system of citizens in China, due to be completed by 2020. If you have a bad social credit score, you’ll lose privileges. For example, you may not be able to book a flight or train ticket. You’ll have trouble getting your children into the best schools. The most lucrative jobs will be closed to you. Banks won’t want to lend you money. Even your love life may slide if your low score shows up on a dating website.
Some Chinese people like the social credit system, saying it makes them better citizens. Others, especially those who express opposing views to the government, end up blacklisted. Just ask Liu Hu, a journalist in China, who writes about censorship and government corruption.
We like to shudder and point the finger at China over dictator-like control. But really, are Western societies so different? In many cases, we’re only a step or two away from the kind of surveillance China is now implementing. It appears their social credit system depends on being linked up to databases that reveal citizen behaviour – what they purchase, their traffic violations, failure to pay taxes or loans and so on. Some of this data is kept in private enterprise systems and others in government records. As this Wired article says, “What’s troubling is when those private systems link up to the government rankings.”
However, this is not so different to the idea of a national identity card, which has never got up and running in countries including the US and Australia, due to privacy and civil liberties concerns. But such a card or system is very possible. I once worked with a database expert who said to me, “I don’t understand why people object to a national identity card. All the information already exists in different databases. A national card would just pull it all together under one system.” But citizens of Western countries dislike any systems that suggest government or business could be keeping closer watch on our behaviour. We value our freedom.
Or is it that we want the freedom to choose whether we give faceless entities personal information? We don’t want governments to be watching us… yet so many of us voluntarily hand over slabs of data through our shopping habits on eBay, our credit cards, and even what we post on social media. If we get a parking or speeding fine, a good number of us will get onto Facebook and rant about the unfairness of the traffic infringement. How does that make sense? We wouldn’t want such an infringement to be used against us in an official social credit system… yet we publicly tell the world we got one and slam the system that gave it to us! Freedom of speech allows citizens in Western countries to do that without fear of reprisal.