It was funny, maybe even a bit scary, when I watched the movie The Circle with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks a few weeks ago. It’s a movie that draws a future in which we are surveilled 24/7. Not by the government, but by ourselves through social media. Our social behavior is the center of our lives. If everyone knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t be in danger any more. People would act sincere. At least that’s the premise. Just a few days later I read about Chinas attempt to implement a Social Credit Score by 2020 that follows the same idea. That’s when it hit me, our reality is now actually worse than what we see in movies. How can that be? When did we overtake the dystopian sci-fi movies and actually created something even darker?
It all comes down to one number
Imagine, everything you do is immediately analyzed and evaluated and then determines your ranking in the society. We already know that facebook correlates data and then tries to suggest new friends and display ads. It’s common to see shopping ideas on Amazon that we are genuinely interested in. What, if that wasn’t everything, though? Let’s take your traffic violations into account, I bet you’re exceeding the speed limit regularly. Imagine, there were cameras to capture all that automatically and add that to your rating. Your shopping behavior, it will count if you buy frozen pizza or bio vegetables. Your travel history will count, your marital status, your profession. How much TV you watch or how long you play video games. It counts if you pay bills and taxes in time. Everything you do will go into an algorithm that generates a single number and that number represents your trustworthiness.
Big player determine your trustworthiness
By 2020 China will have a national database that includes government information as well as the aforementioned accumulated data. Until then China awarded eight companies the privilege to issue their very own Social Credit Score. Two of the eight are China Rapid Finance and Sesame Credit. Both are financial sector companies with huge influence in social media. China Rapid Finance is associated with Tencent, the company behind Chinas most popular messenger app WeChat. WeChat is not only a messenger, but also a serves as a mobile payment app. Mobile Payment is huge in China, not only for online purchases, super markets use it as well with QR codes. These codes are scanned from your phone and then used to take money from your account. Sesame Credit, on the other hand, is affiliated with the Alibaba Group. Alibaba runs several online shops and also the largest online payment platform in the world, AliPay.
Real life gamification
Both companies have the users, the data and the resources to develop a Social Credit Score. These companies know your financial status and your shopping habits. They know your friends and if you live in a nice neighborhood and whether you travel a lot or not. Of course your online profile is no secret as well. Therefore these companies have the power to motivate people to participate. Do you like a hotel reservation without having to leave a cash deposit or maybe even a free room upgrade? You can achieve that with a good score. Sesame Credit runs Baihe, Chinas largest online dating website. A good score will place your profile prominently, so others will see it. There is even a mobile game that lets you guess your friends score. And by the way, your friends score will have an effect on your own one. Better watch out for them, so they don’t fall in disgrace. And the more you share, the higher your ranking might go.
Real life punishments as well
Now, here is the real kicker. A lower score will have an effect as well. Maybe you need to wait longer for an appointment at an administrative office or you will be prohibited from making a reservation in certain restaurants. Even your interest rates for loans can increase and it can effect which school your children can visit. People will think twice if they post critical comments on social media, if they call in sick at work (like they could in China, anyways). They will even start to watch out how their friends behave as their behavior affects your own score. But that are just the punishments for people with a choice.
There will always be people without a choice. People that were born into a poor family, people that may have chronic diseases. What about them? Even if you were the most diligent worker, you wouldn’t get a well paid job, because of a low score. Breaking out of the vicious circle that we already have, will become even harder. Your financial record, your political views, your social environment will determine your position in society. And that position will open to the public.
The next step: A publicly available social credit score
Let’s take this to the next level. Facial recognition is better than ever, even people recognition without seeing their face. Imagine, you could see everyone’s score just by pointing your smartphone at them? You don’t know anything about that person but will have a prejudice whether he or she is worth associating with. It all still sounds like a really good movie about a dark topic, but it’s reality and it’s only a matter of time until it exceeds Chinas borders. Aadhaar is just another example, just as serious. India just enrolled the largest biometric ID system that holds data for almost 1.2 billion of their citizens. India also makes this data available to banks, landlords, telephone and internet companies. There is no public ranking yet, but it’s a huge step in the same direction.
Let us all be a bit more vigilant. Before we know it we could end up competing against your neighbor, your spouse and your friends for a higher Social Credit Score. Is that what our society should be about?