ACLU: Orwellian Citizen Score, China's credit score system, is a warning for Americans

Credit card on fire
Credit: frankieleon

In China, every citizen is being assigned a credit score that drops if a person buys and plays video games, or posts political comments online “without prior permission," or even if social media "friends" do so. The ACLU said the credit rating system, an Orwellian nightmare, should serve as a warning to Americans.

Gamer? Strike. Bad-mouthed the government in comments on social media? Strike. Even if you don’t buy video games and you don’t post political comments online “without prior permission,” but any of your online friends do….strike. The strikes are actually more like dings, dings to your falling credit score that is.

Thanks to a new terrifying use of big data, a credit score can be adversely affected by your hobbies, shopping habits, lifestyles, what you read online, what you post online, your political opinions as well as what your social connections do, say, read, buy or post. While you might never imagine such a credit-rating system in America, it is happening in China and the ACLU said it serves as a warning for Americans.

Big data is sucking in everything about citizens as algorithms evaluate that data, but the Chinese government is leveraging that data and “smart data” analysis that “reveals even casual relationships” in order to create a comprehensive credit score system which “determines your opportunities for life.” Yes the score does measure the ability to pay, but “this is the most staggering, publicly announced, scaled use of big data I've ever seen,” said Silicon Valley entrepreneur Michael Fertik; he is also the author of The Reputation Economy. “It certainly feels about as Orwellian as your nightmares would have it be.”

The new “social credit system” is linked to 1.3 billion Chinese citizens’ national ID cards, scoring them on their behavior and the “activities of friends in your social graph—the people you identify as friends on social media.” Citizens’ credit scores, or “Citizen Scores,” are affected by their own political opinions and the political opinions of their friends as well. The system leverages “all the tools of the information age—electronic purchasing data, social networks, algorithmic sorting—to construct the ultimate tool of social control,” according to Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst for the ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project.

The new Chinese credit score will be mandatory by 2020, but citizens can currently track their score via a free “Sesame Credit” app.

Sesame Credit app China Internet Watch

A citizen’s status, or credit score that ranges from 350 to 950, is available for everyone to view via Credit China. Citizens with higher scores are rewarded; a score of 600, for example, qualifies for an “instant loan” of about $800. At 650, renting a car no longer requires a deposit. At 700, a citizen is fast-tracked for a Singapore travel permit; higher travel visas such as to Europe will be granted for even higher scores. A specific high score may be required to get specific high-status and influential jobs.

“With the help of the latest internet technologies the government wants to exercise individual surveillance,” stated Rogier Creemers, a Belgian China-specialist at Oxford University. “Government and big internet companies in China can exploit ‘Big Data’ together in a way that is unimaginable in the West.”

A citizen’s credit score can be hurt by buying video games, posting political comments without obtaining prior permission, “talking about or describing a different history than the official one, or even publishing accurate up-to-date news from the Shanghai stock market collapse (which was and is embarrassing to the Chinese regime).” Pirate Party Founder Rick Falkvinge added:

But the kicker is that if any of your friends do this — publish opinions without prior permission, or report accurate but embarrassing news — your score will also deteriorate. And this will have a direct impact on your quality of life.

Alibaba, a shopping site, and the social network Tencent, which are the companies running all the social networks in China, will be running the system; the companies have access “to a vast amount of data about people’s social ties and activities and what they say.” Johan Lagerkvist, a Chinese internet specialist at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, said the credit rating system is “very ambitious in both depth and scope, including scrutinizing individual behavior and what books people read. It’s Amazon's consumer tracking with an Orwellian political twist.”

“China’s nightmarish Citizen Scores are a warning for Americans,” according to the ACLU's Stanley. “The United States is a much different place than China, and the chances that our government will explicitly launch this kind of a program any time in the near future is nil, but there are consistent gravitational pulls toward this kind of behavior on the part of many public and private U.S. bureaucracies, and a very real danger that many of the dynamics we see in the Chinese system will emerge here over time.”

Sure you could blow it off as U.S. citizens would never willingly march down the same path as China, but the changeover could happen slowly as people become outraged over each new privacy-invading tidbit and then the outrage passes. Stanley suggested “the TSA’s airline passenger ‘whitelist’ system could evolve” to be similar to China’s new system. For years, credit card companies in America have been using “elements of its judgment-and-reward system” in the “U.S. private-sector credit scoring infrastructure.”

Stanley wrote:

I hope this new Chinese system becomes household knowledge in the United States, and can provide the kind of widely recognized paradigm for what to avoid and how not to be that the old totalitarian regimes used to give us. At the ACLU we are constantly warning of the dangers of abuses of power, and often the dangers we cite, while well-founded, consist of potential futures, leading critics to say we’re being “merely theoretical.” With this Chinese system, a whole range of things we’ve warned about are no longer theoretical.

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