By Rob Harding
We live in the future. It’s easy to forget that.
Just look at the internet. A set of technologies that jumped from military geek-toy to utter ubiquity in just two decades. While only 3/8ths of the world’s population have regular access to the internet -the vast majority of them in North America, Europe and the CIS (the former Soviet Union countries) – other nations are rapidly expanding into the chaos of the digital frontier.
Interestingly, the largest nation on the internet in terms of raw population is the People’s Republic of China. From a single email in 1987 (‘across the Great Wall, we can reach every corner of the world’), China’s online presence has expanded to nearly 689 million regular internet users on 3.24 million domestic web sites by the end of 2015.These are not ancient dial-up PCs labouring in greasy internet cafes either- 83% are using smartphones and China’s broadband network is extensive and widely-used. The Chinese online gaming markets are huge, their domestic online shopping and social media sites are economic giants in their own right. Chinese netizens have been an unholy headache for their government too; while the government owns all internet access points through state-owned telecoms companies, and attempts to enforce various rules through the so-called ‘Great Firewall of China’, as with all online systems hackers have been easily able to penetrate their security and discontent is expressed regularly online.
The Chinese government has done its best to prevent this.The BBC reported in 2013 that nearly two million people were employed to monitor web activity online, and profanity filters, overt censorship and more covert measures like bandwidth throttling are widely used to shut down people expressing unapproved opinions.
The latest attempt to bring China’s restless netizens under control is a new credit-rating system being developed by the Chinese government, China’s Amazon-rivalling e-commerce giant Alibaba, and the media/internet/gaming/ISP company Tencent. Now, credit-rating systems are pretty much ubiquitous in the western world, and while they undoubtedly cause a fair amount of misery, it’s no more by design than the rest of the economy, right? In most countries, a credit-rating system is designed to rate an individual based on how able they are to fulfil financial commitments based on previous dealings. Just another economic widget, albeit one that can, and does screw people over on a regular basis.
Sesame Credit and its ilk are something else. Sesame Credit is a social engineering tool specifically designed to control and quantify social behaviour on a massive scale.
Scary stuff, huh? And while a good start, that video doesn’t begin to do the system justice. Sesame Credit is currently one of six corporate pilot schemes being run with the blessing and involvement of the Chinese government, with a full mandatory rollout planned in 2020. They aren’t trying to hide the system or its purpose, either. As laid out in the vast and repetitive design document the Chinese government released in 2014, the system is designed to ‘establish the idea of an [sic] sincerity culture, and carry forward sincerity and traditional virtues.’ It’s also supposed to be used to fight corruption and financial crime, but the main focus appears to be on finding a way to control and keep track of China’s vast and growing population.
The system already pulls down vast amounts of data, and has already had a profound impact, even in its early beta phases. Your Sesame Credit score already has access to all the data generated by Alibaba, which provides a vast array of online shopping, auction, payment and financial services, as well as dating sites, taxi companies and utility companies. The higher your score, the more ‘trustworthy’ you are considered to be, and the more perks and bonuses you unlock, like deposit-free car rentals or money off hotel rooms. There’s currently no set downside to having a negative score beyond losing said bonuses, but as the score is available for anyone to check users are incentivised to keep it high. The developers have refused to explain exactly how this score is generated, but they have confirmed that it includes elements based not only on how much you buy but also what you buy. The company tracks time spent in-game and purchases to attempt to build an image of the individual. Buy lots of nappies, you’re probably a parent and ‘more likely to have a sense of responsibility’, giving you a higher score. Play video games all day and your score goes down. In addition, it tracks financial credit scores, qualifications, even whether users bothered to settle taxi bills and bills with small retailers.
While the current systems are still largely financial entities, a number of disturbing trends are already apparent. For one, Sesame tracks ‘somewhat unusual types of information, such as a person’s hobbies and whether he or she has a financially irresponsible friend.’ The latter component is particularly disturbing; it incentivises social division and provides tangible benefits to ostracising the less financially stable or fortunate. Imagine having to stop talking to a friend because they missed a rent payment, and facing financial loss or ostracism yourself if you don’t. Worse, imagine having to cut yourself off from a friend because their ‘hobbies’ fell onto the negative list. China’s LGBTQ+ record isn’t the worst in the world and it’s improving year by year, but the country only removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 2001 and then there’s shit like this. Social credit systems provide a way for this sort of institutionalised prejudice against subcultures and minorities to become omnipresent in the name of social harmony.
…if this system works, and makes dissent in China slightly more difficult, imagine how long it’s going to be before other governments start looking at similar ideas?
The reaction in the West to this story has of course been tinged with the standard Far East response, a mix of cultural othering and ‘It can’t happen here’, but let’s examine that. Of course, China’s closed internet and more overtly restrictive government provides a better environment for systems like this to be widely implemented, but Sesame Credit is much more than just top-down government and corporate rule-sets. The combination of bonuses and arbitrary scores essentially functions as operant conditioning, in a manner already seen in hundreds of absurdly popular free-to-play games. It’s the same mechanics that compel people to keep playing Clash of Clans or Eve Online- social pressure combined with compulsive design.
Scarier still, it’s working. Early adopters are enthusiastically using the system, some lured by financial gains and others by patriotism. Scores pop up on dating sites and social networks. Currently if friends join Sesame Credit, your score goes up regardless of theirs. As this slightly less hysterical article says, the current system is purely financial, and serves more to enforce customer loyalty. The potential, however, is entirely real. Even if the government-mandated system is abandoned, the existing systems make life significantly easier for the Chinese government to snoop if it wants to. Worse, if this system works, and makes dissent in China slightly more difficult, imagine how long it’s going to be before other governments start looking at similar ideas? Given the British government’s complete disregard for the privacy of its own citizens, a self-reinforcing system for stifling dissent that leans heavily towards the carrot end of the spectrum rather than the stick has to have caught their interest.
Featured Image: http://blogs.globalasia.com/madeinprc/tag/infografias/