China is unveiling plans for a “social credit system” that rates citizens based on their social and financial standing. Using big data to track the behavior of individuals, this new tool is intended to “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”—as described in planning documents. The proposed system has been in the works since September 2015, as Beijing hopes to rebuild a line of trust with the people that has gradually deteriorated from decades of unchecked development. As dozens of local governments across China assemble citizen credit records, the Communist Party has announced goals to roll out a nationwide plan by 2020—effectively turning big data into big brother.
Tracking citizens throughout their daily activities, the system rewards positive behavior such as volunteer work, academic integrity, and adherence to traffic rules and family planning limits, while punishing negative behavior such as neglecting bills, spreading banned information online, or littering. A person’s score then dictates his or her access to important social and economic opportunities, including securing loans, government registry approvals, school admissions for children, or even opportunities to travel. Striving to enforce higher levels of trustworthiness among citizens, the system ensures that, “if trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere.”
China’s new program has already launched at the pilot stage in various provinces. Authorities in Hangzhou are using these credit ratings to penalize subway fare fraud, littering, and smoking in prohibited zones, while their counterparts in Ningxia apply the system toward punishing against families that have more than two children. In Shanghai, citizens could be chastised for avoiding time with their parents. As Beijing develops these regional pilots in preparation for a national program, this massive database has potential to offer the government an unprecedented degree of control over social mobility for citizens. This would add to already tightening online censorship and cybersecurity laws during the current administration.
Still decentralized, these pilot programs presently only collect information that is already publicly available, relying on government-compiled information such as court records and loan and tax data. However, Beijing has approved eight Chinese internet companies—including ecommerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.—to pilot commercial social credit scoring, focused on citizens’ social media use and online shopping. Though the potential of this combined public-private data collection strategy is unknown, it demonstrates clear government hopes to launch a tracking program that is both thorough and comprehensive.
Achieving this sweeping nationwide system by the 2020 deadline will prove difficult, as integrating data while maintaining secure information for nearly 1.4 billion citizens is a tall order. Processing and updating this vast array of personal information among citizens would require a massive effort on the part of the Chinese government, as any small error in data calculation would undermine the reliability of the system. Beijing must avoid such an outcome if it wishes to build a program that can be trusted by the people and not perceived as subjective. For this reason, the new system will likely take time to evolve, as Beijing gradually consolidates various regional collection databases into centralized categories that distinguish “good behavior” versus “bad behavior.” Of course, a social credit system orchestrated entirely through digital means will be subject to threats from hackers—yet another risk the government must consider as it assembles a program that is safe and consistent.
Nevertheless, the Chinese government does have the resources, as well as an appetite for continued rapid development, theoretically strong enough to execute these goals within the not too distant future. As China’s social credit system takes form in the coming years, the whole world will be watching, as a rapidly digitalizing globe continues to grapple with the complex—and often ethically and legally controversial—evolution of data-gathering technology standards.