Social Scoring in China: Big Brother squared

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Social Scoring in China: Big Brother squared

IoT technology offers many opportunities for massive surveillance – and the country is using them all for Social Scoring in China.

by Rainer Claassen

If you regularly drive a car, you probably know one social scoring system: most countries have central ledgers in which serious – violations of traffic laws are stored. When a person’s penalty-point score goes too high (or below zero in some countries) they may lose their driver’s license.

In 2020, the Chinese government announced a social scoring system that will cover violations even by pedestrians – as well as misdemeanors in many other walks of life. The system was first envisioned in the mid-1990s with the aim of evaluating anything that might indicate the trustworthiness of each of the 1.4 billion Chinese people. In 2014, the Chinese government specified its plan in a document sent to all provincial, regional, and municipal People’s Governments. In an interview with the Mercator Institute for China Studies (Mertics), Rogier Creemers, China law and governance lecturer at Oxford and Leiden universities, said, “The central leadership seems to believe that technology will allow it to overcome the old problems of ‘the mountains being high and the emperor being far away’ that have plagued Chinese administrations for 3,000 years. So, I think the use of social credit systems for government oversight is something we’re very much going to see.” The Chinese government (and local authorities) will be able to see a lot: estimates say that there are 170 million CCTV cameras installed in the country – and they don’t just use face recognition to identify people. Artificial intelligence from Watrix has developed a gait-recognition technology which can identify individuals from the way they move and the shape of their silhouette from up to 50 meters away – even if their face is hidden. It is currently being used by police in Beijing and Shanghai. Using the same technology in IoT applications, China plans to rank all its citizens based on their “social credit” by 2020. Like private financial credit scores, a person’s social scores can move up and down according to their behavior. At the moment the system is piecemeal – some are run by city councils, while others are scored by private tech platforms that hold personal data. The program is due to be fully operational nationwide by 2020 but is being piloted for millions of people across the country already.

The use of social credit systems for government oversight is something we are very much going to see.

Rogier Creemers, Investor

Social Scoring in China: Rogier Creemers - Mercator Institute


The Western media are already publishing stories about social scoring penalties that could have been taken straight out of George Orwell’s novel 1984. Reports abound that people are being punished for behaving badly and rewarded for good behavior. In February, China’s National Public Credit Information Centre released its annual report which stated that 17.46 million “discredited members of society” had been blocked from buying flight tickets and that 5.47 million were denied high-speed rail travel. The program is eventually expected to be used to punish individuals for bad behavior such as traveling without a ticket, loitering in front of boarding gates, smoking in no-smoking areas, spending too much time playing video games, wasting money on frivolous purchases, and spreading “fake news” or making unwise posts on social media. Trust-breaking individuals could also be banned from doing management jobs in state-owned firms and big banks, while children may be denied places in the best schools and universities because of their parents’ antisocial behavior. In July 2018, a Chinese university was said to have refused admission to a student because his father had a bad social credit score. The city of Jinan started enforcing a social credit system for dog owners in 2017, according to local reports. Pet owners are awarded a score and get points deducted if the dog is walked without a leash or causes public disturbances.

Social Scoring in China - Social Credit System

Chinese Tower: China is broadening its data gathering and has given licenses to eight private companies to develop systems and algorithms for determining social credit scores.

Anyone losing all their points will have their dogs confiscated and be required to take a test on pet ownership regulations. It is not clear by which means the government will raise the cost of breaking trust and misbehaving, but it is broadening its means of data gathering and has given licenses to eight private companies to develop algorithms for determining social credit scores. Among the chosen developers are China Rapid Finance, partner of the giant social network Tencent, and Sesame Credit, a scheme run by the Ant Financial Services Group (AFSG) – an affiliate of the Alibaba Group, the world’s largest retailer and e-commerce company. AFSG’s core business is selling insurance products and providing loans and its AliPay service is used to pay online and offline and to transfer money privately.

Human rights and Social Scoring in China

Human rights activists worry that people will be judged according to their score and that there will be no way to appeal a sentence imposed by technology. Human Rights Watch called it “chilling,” while Rachel Botsman, a trust expert who lectures at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, called it “a futuristic vision of Big Brother out of control.” Proponents of the scoring system note that people can also be rewarded for behaving socially. For instance, they will potentially be able to get discounts on energy bills, rent things without deposits, and get better interest rates at banks. According to a recent article in MIT Technology Review, “… many scholars argue that social credit scores won’t have the wide-scale controlling effect presumed. The data the scheme collects doesn’t actually align with the data that, say, a bank needs to determine whether to grant you a loan. Regulations have also been revised in instances of intense pushback. Suining County allegedly got rid of its point deductions for unauthorized petitions, for example, because of widespread unpopularity. Therefore, these scholars say, the system acts more as a tool of propaganda than a tool of enforcement. Others point out that it is simply an extension of Chinese culture’s long tradition of promoting good moral behavior and that Chinese citizens have a completely different perspective on privacy and freedom.”

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