I’m an ‘Untrustworthy’ Citizen, wbu?

The popular television series Black Mirror recently released its fourth season. The series really upped the ante by primarily focusing on surveillance and data. What really strikes a chord is how realistic these episodes could be… or are. Recently, China announced their plan for a social credit system to be fully implemented by 2020. If you thought Black Mirror was whack, get a load of this real-life human ranking system.

Over the past couple of years, China has been creating a social credit system that aims to rank individuals on their trustworthiness. This so-called ‘social credit’ is a similar concept to an individual’s credit rating, except that it looks at all aspects of your day-to-day life and your personal score will go up and down depending on how you behave.

So, what does this mean exactly? Well, it can be anything and everything, from who you befriend online to not canceling your restaurant reservation.

How do they know all this information? Surveillance – using big data and Artificial Intelligence generated algorithms.

So, would you pass the test of being a trustworthy and upstanding citizen? Here are just some of the examples of this dystopian reality.

Jaywalking – Individuals are identified through the Government’s surveillance system and are given negative credit scores. The details of the jaywalkers are published to the Shenzhen Traffic Police website.

Lui Hu is a 43 year old journalist, who lost a defamation lawsuit back in 2015. He has been blacklisted as ‘dishonest personnel’ and is now unable to travel by plane, stay in star rated hotels, buy a house or send his nine year old daughter to private school.

Seventeen people refused to carry out military service in China and are now unable to enroll in higher education courses, complete high school or send their kids to a private school.

So, now that you’ve seen some of the ‘untrustworthy’ things that people are doing, it’s time to get a deeper understanding of what this all means.

In two years, everyone in China will be registered in a national database that will compile all information relating to people’s behaviours, consumption and offences. Each citizen will then be given numbered ranking.

The algorithms that are in place will give you either a positive or negative score. So, if you are talking to someone untrustworthy you will get a negative score. If you post about how great China is, you will get a positive score. The five categories that people are being scored on are social connections, consumption behaviour, security, wealth and compliance. To add to all of this, if you are one of those people that are blacklisted, the media will make your information public for everyone to see. The restrictions that will be imposed on those who are blacklisted could include: public transport, flying, restaurants, hotels, children attending certain schools and insurance.

The Chinese Government has placed surveillance equipment in particular locations, this is called Integrated Joint Operations Platform. This platform is a high-tech surveillance system that captures and pools information about citizens’ bank records, computer details and legal pasts. The surveillance system aims to run in parallel to the social credit system to collectively gather as much information and data as it can across multiple platforms.

Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch told the ABC that, “They basically just do monitoring and surveillance of people and particularly categories of people who the authorities consider as focused personnel.”

Private companies in China have already been running pilot programs using data analysis to profile their customers. Some of the instruments and techniques they have been using are facial recognition and online public shaming.

Ant Financial are one of the companies running a private credit system called, Zhima (Sesame) Credit. This system uses algorithms and data from Alipay, which is Alibaba’s extremely popular payment platform. This system rates people by their consumption behavior and preferences. It can tell if someone has been playing video games for 10 hours a day and it will then categorise this person as lazy. The interesting thing is that this app is extremely popular and people show off their high scores as a badge of honour on social media.


Sesame Credit claims that this profiling system is used purely for the company and is not giving any information to Chinese authorities. However, if Chinese authorities manage to get access to this information and data from these private companies, they will have total social and political control over its citizens. The Government will truly be able control people’s behaviour and day-to-day activities by making sure people remain upstanding citizens.

Some believe that if the social credit system were to be properly implemented, then it could have positive impacts on China. These positive impacts are particularly focused on finding and identifying corrupt businesses or officials. Already more than 1,100 government officials have been blacklisted as untrustworthy. In saying that, 7 million citizens have been labeled as untrustworthy… so it’s not looking too great in the big scheme of things.

If you’re an avid watcher of Black Mirror, usually this kinda stuff doesn’t turn out too well. Concerns that come to mind from the social credit system are:

  • Hacking
  • Social profiling
  • Privacy
  • Ethics
  • Data protection
  • The power imbalance between the government and its citizens
  • Freedom

An interesting section from Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declares, “ No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence , nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.” This statement is pretty much saying that privacy is a human right. However, does this statement mean anything in the context of the digital sphere? The answer is, kind of.

In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 68/167, which expressed concerns on privacy and surveillance on human rights. Further research shows that the laws are being somewhat changed to adapt to the digital era. The Resolution 68/176 calls upon all states to “respect and protect the right to privacy, including in the context of digital communication, to ensure that their procedures, practices and laws are human rights compliant in this regard, and to take relevant measures, including legislation, to comply with the international framework for privacy protection.” This statement brings forth the question; isn’t China’s social credit system disobeying human rights?

While details and effects of this social credit system are still sketchy, it is still a very scary thought/reality. I for one would not be keen on having my freedom compromised and not having the ability to travel because I forgot to return a book to the library or because I’m friends with someone who is ‘free spirited’. Not to mention the lack of privacy outside and inside your own home. I know for sure that I would probably not be considered a ‘trustworthy’ citizen… what about you?

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