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Big Brother is Watching You
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Big Brother is Watching You

Remember that Black Mirror episode, Nosedive, where they rate each other based on looks, social interactions and service?
Remember thinking what a horrible vision of a future that would never actually happen…well think again. China has rolled out a government endorsed pilot programme with selected big data businesses which does just that. It aims to go live as mandatory for the whole of China’s population in 2020.

Named the ‘social credit system’ by this BBC article, China aims to rate its citizens on trustworthiness. This is judged by ‘complex algorithms’, but from what can be discerned, this trustworthiness is judged on the following; financial credit history, social online interactions and online shopping purchases. This data is then merged with other information available on the national database, just some of which includes qualifications received and crimes committed.

Even though Sesame Credit (a Financial Services Group and one of the companies running the pilot scheme), denies monitoring social media activity (as in what a person posts or what comments they make) as being part of the way in which social credit scores are generated, it does judge online shopping as an indicator of what kind of person you are, for instance, "Someone who plays video games for ten hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person," says Li Yingyun, Sesame's Technology Director.

It is hardly a jump of the imagination to see that Sesame Credit could easily monitor and judge all online social interactions as part of an overall ‘social credit’ score. The pilot has already admitted that the choice of friends on social media does affect your score and sharing ‘nice’ messages about the government will make your score go up.

As an article by WIRED points out, ‘the system not only investigates behaviour - it shapes it. It "nudges" citizens away from purchases and behaviours the government does not like.’ Therefore, establishing more control than ever over its citizens, who are rewarded when they do something the government approves of and punished vice versa where they do something non-government approved.

Obviously, there are many concerning issues with this social credit scheme, almost too many to name, and a lot of these issues are apparent in the Black Mirror episode. Complex human beings and personalities reduced to mere ‘scores’, punishments if you’re not ‘nice’ enough, fear of disagreeing with anyone unless you get negatively rated, not being able to have a 'off' day, to name a few!

Also, the concept of making a mistake and then picking yourself up again, whether that be through your professional life, relationships or anything else is simply is not an option, as your negative rating is now on your record forever. Self-improvement is much harder when you’re followed around by a negative score and self-improvement (social credit score wise) is only possible by doing what the government deems acceptable anyway. In other words, it’s the ‘thought police’ in full effect.

On one hand it is hard to see this kind of system being rolled out in the west or used without mass uproar. However, in the same breath that people have an absolute fear about data being stored about them for use by the government or for marketing purposes, as evidenced by the new GDPR compliance laws and various data security acts. The very same people (in a lot of cases) are also simultaneously throwing an abundance of information about themselves out into the world of social media, feeding it into every online platform available. For instance, Facebook asks where you when you go to upload a photo, and you tell it, Instagram pushes you to upload a live video with what you were doing today, and you do it.

The Uber system of ‘good rating’ when you ride with them, and the Airbnb ‘rate your guest’ features all seem like very good, and helpful features for all concerned. But is this so very different than being socially ‘rated’?

Obviously, yes and no; yes, you are being rated, no this doesn’t stop you buying a house in the near future and used against you in job interviews as the Chinese system may eventually do. Even though Sesame say they aren’t monitoring social media actions, one can see how the government in China might exploit its citizens previous exchanges on social media to full effect, to help build a better and clearer ‘score’ based on historic data, previously fed in by the very person it now judges on ‘trustworthiness’.

This new social credit system could also have an adverse effect on digital advertising in China. Currently China has a huge mobile media advertising industry with billions of mobile users accessing content ‘on the go’ and being served with adverts often. 

WeChat is one of the most used social platforms in China, essentially a cross between WhatsApp and Facebook, but with added features. On WeChat you have your own profile of interests and can talk to your friends, upload moments and photographs of your day, much like Facebook. However, you can also use the app to manage your money, buy movie tickets, split a bill and buy products through an online payment service, which all makes monitoring highly convenient from a social credit score point of view.

It will be interesting to see if there’s a change in behaviour on China’s social media platforms once citizens realise there are not only benefits, but punishments which come from expressing behaviours which may impact their social credit score. This may lead to users expressing behaviour untrue to their actual interests which in turn will affect advertisers and their ability to serve adverts of interest.

The upshot of this is, note to self, be careful what you put on social media.

Posted 29 January 2018 by