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The rise of “Big Brother”? China moves to “rate” its citizens

It sounds all too paradoxical in today’s free and globalized world, but Chinese citizens have only two years left of personal freedom. Wired reveals that afterwards, it’s Big Brother’s eyes on their every move.

So, what’s the true deal and will the rest of the world follow?

People become a number

By 2020 the Chinese government plans to launch the “Social Credit System” (CSC). This is how Wired paints the picture: “Imagine a world where many of your daily activities were constantly monitored and evaluated: what you buy at the shops and online; where you are at any given time; who your friends are and how you interact with them; how many hours you spend watching content or playing video games; and what bills and taxes you pay (or not).”

That’s not so bad, you say – it’s happening already.

Yes, we are all numbers on data lists somewhere, everywhere.

But here’s the disturbing difference: the Chinese government is planning to extrapolate its citizens’ data to one single number. That number, a record of all their movements and actions, will be used as a scorecard to evaluate each person. According to their score, they’ll be allowed or forbidden certain basic privileges.

Your life depends on your score

What is more, a person’s score will be a matter of public record.

Imagine — your score will decide if you get a mortgage or a job, where you can live, who you can marry, where your children can be born or can go to school.

The purpose of the Chinese government is to establish a basis for a person’s trustworthiness. The idea is that if you act in an untrustworthy manner, you’ll be punished – you won’t be trusted to apply for a certain position for example.

According to Wired, the Chinese government is pitching the system as a desirable way to measure and enhance “trust” nationwide and to build a culture of “sincerity”. As the policy states, “it will forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and the construction of judicial credibility.”

The strategy of the Chinese government revealed

We hear you think: this sounds too crazy to be real. How will the Chinese government make this work in practice? Let us reveal their strategy to you.

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In preparation for the 2020 rollout, the Chinese government has instructed eight private companies to develop systems and algorithms to calculate credit scores. These include Sesame Credit, the financial wing of Alibaba and China Rapid Finance, a partner of the social-network behemoth Tencent and owner of the messaging app WeChat with more than 850 million active users. Alibaba is the world’s biggest online shopping platform with 400 million users.

So how is all this data collecting and credit estimation playing out at the moment?

The BBC received a statement from a spokeswoman at Sesame Credit rejecting the idea that it monitors users’ social media activity when assessing their social credit, stating that it tracks “financial and consumption activities of our users, and materials published on social media platforms do not affect our users’ personal Sesame Credit score”.

But it’s not that innocent. Look at this.

The BCC reports Sesame Credit does not hide that it actually judges the types of products shoppers buy online and quotes what Li Yingyun, Sesame’s technology director told Caixin, a Chinese magazine, in February: “Someone who plays video games for 10 hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person, and someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.”

Go figure. Only an algorithm could draw such narrow-minded conclusions. And people’s lives are going to depend on it.

Does 1984 become reality?

At this point, participating in China’s Citizen Scores is voluntary, but Wired reports that by 2020 it will be mandatory. The behavior of every single citizen and legal entity in China will be rated and ranked, whether they like it or not.

Some argue that 3.1 billion people are difficult to monitor and that this kind of system can help to expose debtors and fraudsters while establishing the creditworthiness of millions of unbanked Chinese.

But can trustworthiness be decided on basis of everyday social interaction, or on what people buy on Amazon? Is it fair to decide on people’s lives and limit their freedom on basis of a scorecard? This uncomfortably feels like we’re heading towards George Orwell’s 1984…

Check out this article as well on how Facebook monitors our every move and how to protect yourself from it — and share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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Written by Gosia Kurowska

Gosia Kurowska was born in Poland and has lived in Belgium before moving to Thailand recently. She has worked for the EU institutions as a speechwriter and press officer for several years. She now launched her own blog on handmade fashion and jewelry from Thailand/Asia,

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