Not so long ago, George Orwell’s “1984” seemed like something that could never actually happen. Then, revelations about the NSA’s mass surveillance practices lead to indicators that pretty much all intelligence agencies of the world run some sort of similar practice. And then there’s China – a country that has never hidden the extent of its ever-watchful eye.
For many years now, China has been not only surveilling its citizens, but also limiting their online access to certain tools they can control. That means no YouTube, no Google, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, or WhatsApp. Obviously, tools that can encrypt people’s communications are not agreeable to the Chinese government because they cannot look into what was said, to whom was said, and when. “Big Brother is watching you” may still be a somewhat foreign idea for many countries of the world, but for China, it’s everyday reality.
China’s Social Credit System
Things are about to get even more real in China as the government is starting to roll out its brand new surveillance scheme. The idea is not new, but actually has roots in a June 2014 document regarding the construction of a Social Credit System.
What is this Social Credit System? Well, it’s pretty much Big Brother on steroids. Each citizen’s national trust score would be evaluated. It would involve the government knowing what you buy, how much you spend, what bills you pay, how much you earn, how much time you waste online, who you spend time with, how healthy you are, and so on. A neverending list. If you think Google, Facebook, and Amazon know a lot about you, what you like and what you do, they’re little players compared to the Chinese government. These aforementioned companies may rely on cookies to cross-check and deduct loads of information about you, but China will have it all handed out to them. And it’s not just metadata that they can figure things out of – no, it’s also going to be plain text conversations, social media posts, emails and so on.
As China banned Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp, users had to resort to using local alternatives. Users are also banned from using encrypting VPN channels, so there’s no way around the blockade either. Tencent’s messaging app WeChat has more than 850 million active users and it has long since warned them that all their communications are fair game for government surveillance.
For now, participating in the Citizen Scores programme is voluntary, but from 2020, it will become mandatory, and that’s not too far away. Whether they like it or not, every citizen and business will have their behavior rated and ranked. That could determine whether certain children can go to certain schools, whether an individual can take a bank loan, or rent a car.
The score has also become something of a bragging point in China already. Those that have already volunteered are commenting the issue on social media, especially Weibo, which is China’s Twitter equivalent. Certain scores will get them certain privileges, such as small loans, or forgoing certain documents when traveling to Singapore, or even visas. In short, they’re offering prizes in exchange for the collected data, although, truth be told, they can very well go without them.
These rewards they offer, however, seem to sweeten the deal for the millions of Internet users in China whose data the government and top corporations will have access to in full. You know what the Chinese Internet users won’t have under this new project? Any kind of cyber-secrets.
Did they buy too many painkillers? The government will know. Did they share some private information with a friend on WeChat? They’ll know what was shared and who the friend is. If they use a Fitbit-like device, they’ll also know how physically active they are, what routes they take when they go for a run, and where they make often stops. Their Internet history will also tell the government the rest of the story. Crosscheck all this data and you get a perfectly clear picture of what that person’s life is like, what are their white secrets, which might make them slightly embarrassed, and what black secrets they have, which might make them feel shame.
A different system
There are other countries out there with a credit score system, including the United States, but that one only takes into account if you pay your loans on time, if you tend to max out your credit cards, how long you’ve had a credit history for, and how many times you’ve applied for credit. As many have noted in the past, including John Oliver on his show, the system isn’t exactly perfect; then again, no system really is. The difference between the USA and China is that China will take more of its Big Brother powers and put them to use in this credit system.
The truth is that the future will be about how much private companies and governments know about us. Whether we live in a country such as China, or not, it will be irrelevant, because the model makes sense for any country with an advanced economy.
While some 93% of the US population wants to know who has access to their data, as revealed by a 2015 Pew Institute research, it’s hard to tell how things stand in China, particularly because the population is used to the constant surveillance, so much that it has become the status quo.
This system that is on China’s doorstep will not only give out scores to people, but it will also shape their behavior to one that the government wants from its model citizens. More specifically, if people want to have better credit, they better stop spending countless hours playing video games and start doing more sports, spending money more wisely instead of renewing their wardrobes every month when the gas bill is left unpaid, and so on.
The worse part, however, will be that everyone’s secrets will be in the government’s hands now more than ever before.