Orwellian Social Credit system: myth or reality?


Black Mirror

Everyone who has been keeping up with the offering of Netflix has heard of Black Mirror, the series about dystopian worlds becoming reality. In one of the episodes writer Charlie Booker depicts a world in which every citizen has a social score that everyone can vote on when getting into contact with the person in question. The main character of the episode is at a certain point in the episode denied access to a flight due to her low social score.  A scary thought, but as it turns out very much reality. The Chinese government intends to implement a similar system as portrayed in Black Mirror in which people are assigned a social credit. Main difference is that this score is attributed by the government through big data, not by fellow ‘victims’. In the coming year, 2020, the social credit system is bound to kick off. While the examples of a poor social credit provided in the Orwellian Black Mirror episode approach extremes, some of the scenes will turn out to be real consequences in China. For example, by the end of 2018 more than five million citizens of China have already been denied access to high-speed rail tickets due to having been placed on a blacklist due to debt  (Needham, 2019). Some other implications for citizens once the system initiates are being unable to find a job in civil service, journalism and legal fields or having your children being denied access to high-paying private schools (Botsman, 2017).

Sesame Credit

What if I told you that this social system has been a reality for over four years already? That’s right. Alibaba, the Chinese multinational giant in e-commerce and other sectors, has assigned its customers with a social credit score, commonly referred to as Sesame Credit (Jefferson, 2018). Alibaba is known to have close affiliates with the Chinese government and the Sesame Credit is partially a trial version of the social credit system about to be introduced (Financial Times, 2017).

So what is the Sesame Credit and how does it work? Alibaba collects a ton of data on their customers. Given that they are active in insurance, loans, e-commerce and even dating, it is evident that they have a lot to analyze. The credit system uses data on more than 300 million people and 37 million businesses (Alibaba Group, 2015). To add to this, their ties with the Chinese government provide them with access to official identities, financial records and even messages of Chinese WhatsApp alternative WeChat (Huang, 2017). All this data is gathered by Alibaba and then analyzed to come to a Sesame Credit, which can be interpreted as an indication of someone’s trustworthiness. While the exact algorithm they use to determine a person’s Sesame Credit is unknown, it is known that the heaps and heaps of data collected all amount to a different rating in five categories. Namely, credit history, fulfillment capacity (ability to live up to contract terms etc.), personal characteristics, behavior & preferences and lastly interpersonal relationships (i.e. your friends). Bound together, you get yourself your very own Sesame Credit.

Applications

Now, what to do with your Sesame Credit is a natural next question. A main difference when comparing the Sesame Credit to the approaching Social Credit system by the Chinese government is that the Sesame Credit is about rewarding trustworthy people rather than punishing those that do not have a high rating. Some ways in which the credit score has rewarded customers are when applying for a loan with Ant Financial, a daughter company of Alibaba or when trying to book a night at a hotel. The merit to a high social score there is not having to pay up front due to the high trustworthiness. Baihe.com, a Chinese dating site, has even started to allow users to add their Sesame Credit to their profile as a way to provide better dating opportunities for users (Hatton, 2015). These are just some of the more obvious applications for the Sesame Credit and how it creates value for people with a high rating.

A remaining question is the value for Alibaba itself. Other than being a nice perk to hand out to customers, a first glance at the credit system raises the question as to what the use is for Alibaba. The reason why Sesame Credit or any social credit in China has a lot of purpose for these entities is the way it points out desired behavior. By encouraging people to behave by making them aware of the fact that every move is being monitored and therefore counts, people will start to behave more desirably in order to retain their high Sesame Credit and, consequentially, the rewards that come with it.

Basically, the Sesame Credit seems to be a win-win situation for those people that are, in the most broad definition of the word, decent and Alibaba. By evoking good behavior in people so that their Sesame Credit becomes an accurate reflection of their proper conduct, Alibaba boosts the average trustworthiness of their customers as well as providing their model citizens with proper rewards. Naturally, there are questions as to the ethics of monitoring every step customers take as well as analyzing them and adding a trustworthiness tag to a human being, but all ethical issues aside, the business model seems to merit both the user and the company. It works, and given that Sesame Credit was a trial indirectly executed by the Chinese government, we can look forward to the implementation of ‘the real deal’, the actual social system that will go live in 2020.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the episode Nosedive from Black Mirror has opened the eyes to many westerners which regard to the social credit system that is about to be introduced nationwide in China. Despite this more recent revelation, the Sesame Credit, a predecessor to the big fish by the Chinese government has been up and running for four years already and is deemed a success. Customers get assigned with a trustworthiness score and in return get access to many advantages such as discounts or not having to pay deposits at hotels. If this system will work in a punishing fashion has yet to be discovered, but it will most certainly be an interesting development to keep an eye out for.

References

Alibaba Group (2015) Ant Financial Unveils China’s First Credit-Scoring System Using Online Data. Available at: https://www.alibabagroup.com/en/news/article?news=p150128 (Accessed: 7 March 2019).

Botsman, R. (2017) Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens. Available at: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/chinese-government-social-credit-score-privacy-invasion (Accessed: 7 March 2019).

Financial Times (2017) China changes tack on ‘social credit’ scheme plan. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/f772a9ce-60c4-11e7-91a7-502f7ee26895?mc_cid=9068154611 (Accessed: 7 March 2019).

Hatton, C. (2015) China ‘social credit’: Beijing sets up huge system. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-34592186 (Accessed: 7 March 2019).

Huang, P. (2017) WeChat Confirms: It Shares Just About All Private Data With the Chinese Regime. Available at: https://www.theepochtimes.com/wechat-confirms-it-gives-just-about-all-private-user-data-to-the-chinese-regime_2296960.html (Accessed: 7 March 2019).

Jefferson, E. (2018) No, China isn’t Black Mirror – social credit scores are more complex and sinister than that. Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/world/asia/2018/04/no-china-isn-t-black-mirror-social-credit-scores-are-more-complex-and-sinister (Accessed: 7 March 2019).

Needham, K. (2019) China: Big Data watches millions during Chinese New Year. Available at: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/millions-are-on-the-move-in-china-and-big-data-is-watching-20190204-p50vlf.html (Accessed: 7 March 2019).

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