The world’s most populous country is set to implement a “Big Brother” data system which will round up financial, social, political, and legal credit ratings of citizens, summing it all up into a personal social credit score which will affect numerous aspects of their lives.

The night skyline in Hong Kong. Image credits: Base64

What if I told you your life could become like an RPG in some ways? There’s a chance you might get excited, thinking of brave knights and wizards defeating monsters. But this story isn’t about heroes, this story is about a totalitarian approach to governance. Thie Chinese government wants to use big data to create digital records (scores) to monitor citizens’ social and financial behavior. In turn, these will be used to create a so-called social credit score which will decide what services an individual has access to, from education and traveling to health insurance. Of course, some citizens of special interest (like lawyers and journalists) will be monitored more closely.

At a first glance, this would seem impossible – especially for a country where 1.3 billion people don’t own a credit card. But with the virtual ubiquity of smartphones, ecommerce, and social media, it could very well work. The reason why they’re doing this seems lofty at first. China has huge issues with unregulated companies and activities, and its economy often functions in an anarchic way.

“Fraud has become ever more common in society,” Lian Weiliang, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s main economic planning agency, said in April. “Swindlers have to pay a price.”

Officials claim the system will be used to monitor “infractions such as fare cheating, jaywalking and violating family-planning rules” and make sure that there are social repercussions for these. But when you start to look at it deeper, this is still Communist China we’re talking about. This is a one-party country which employs a strict censorship. “The Great Firewall of China” makes sure that only approved information can reach the country, and even big websites like Facebook or Google are partially banned. Providing the Communist Party with a system to handle society like this and then relying on its benevolence seems like a recipe for disaster.

“A huge part of Chinese political theatre is to claim that there is an idealised future, a utopia to head towards,” said Rogier Creemers, a professor of law and governance at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “Now after half a century of Leninism, and with technological developments that allow for the vast collection and processing of information, there is much less distance between the loftiness of the party’s ambition and its hypothetical capability of actually doing something,” he said.

The whole idea behind the system, that performing “badly” in one part of your life can affect your entire life is easily manipulable.

“China is moving towards a totalitarian society, where the government controls and affects individuals’ private lives,” said Beijing-based novelist and social commentator Murong Xuecun. “This is like Big Brother, who has all your information and can harm you in any way he wants.”

However, although parts of this project are already being implemented, they’re still miles and miles away from making the whole thing a reality. Wang Zhicheng of Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management said in an interview:

“China has a long way to go before it actually assigns everyone a score. If it wants to do that, it needs to work on the accuracy of the data. At the moment it’s ‘garbage in, garbage out.’”

But if they do it, it could usher in a new age – a dystopian age, where people will have no privacy and to an extent, disturbingly little control over their own lives. There’s also the matter of securing such a system. William Glass, a threat intelligence analyst at cybersecurity expert FireEye, says a centralised system would be both vulnerable and immensely attractive to hackers.

“There is a big market for this stuff, and as soon as this system sets up, there is great incentive for cybercriminals and even state-backed actors to go in, whether to steal information or even to alter it,” he said. “This system will be the ground truth of who you are. But considering that all this information is stored digitally, it is certainly not immutable, and people can potentially go in and change it.”

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