By: Alistair Bernhard
When one thinks of data, one tends to think about all the innovation and advancement it has created. Banks can study client’s data to make more informed decisions and reduce the risk of losing their money. Small businesses can use the tools of large corporations and have a fighting chance to prosper in a competitive world. Healthcare facilities can use data to analyze patient’s symptoms and prescribe solutions to their ailments. Every article I read, seems to present data as this revolutionary force that will propel humanity into a better future.
While I like a happy ending as much as the next Disney fanatic, I was raised a realist, or in today’s terms, that means a skeptic and a pessimist. When I was a child, my father once said to me, “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” These are words that I live by, and it means that I will not be surprised when bad things happen.
Most people in this world go about their daily lives without realizing that their data are being logged and used for whatever purpose the collector of that data sees fit. “If you think of everything you do in the online world, every site you visit, everything you click on – you’re being tracked.” This makes me wonder: what happens if our data is used against us, to revoke our human rights and make us all subservient? I know how this sounds, and you are probably thinking I wrote this article wearing my tin foil hat – but bear with me. This misuse of data is already happening in China. In late 2020, the Communist Party of China (CPC) is expected to release its Social Credit System, and it is something out of a horror movie.
SOCIAL CREDIT SYSTEM
The CPC created the Social Credit System (SCS) as a way of keeping its citizens in line, and it is a score given to each citizen that quantitatively represents said citizen’s reputation. China has 1.4 billion people, and all of them will eventually be a part of the SCS once it is fully deployed. Not only does it track their movements, but it monitors their behaviors and actions. Their scores can go up or down depending on their activities and conduct. Some negative actions include committing a crime, protesting the government, or not visiting their elderly parents enough; all these and more will reduce a citizen’s social score. On the other hand, if a person prevents a crime, donates blood, or publicly praises the government on social media, their score will increase. If one’s score drops too low, penalties could involve “loss of employment and educational opportunities, as well as restrictions on transportation.” If people have high social credit scores, they will get perks like discounts on utility bills and faster application processes to travel abroad, among other things. Although the country has not rolled out the finished product, the CPC has been testing the software in 42 different cities across China since 2009.
The SCS can have negative effects on a people’s lives, from threatening their freedom, taking away their voices by blacklisting them, and watching them day and night until they comply with expected behaviors.
The SCS is a tool to suppress the masses and take away liberties that we in America take for granted every day. The CPC will sort through government, financial, and criminal records to create a score for each user. The CPC will search people’s social media posts to decipher if they are for or against the government. The CPC will analyze their shopping habits, to see what type of clothes they wear, if they are a well-dressed person or if they buy punk style clothing, deemed to be anti-establishment.
The SCS was devised to manage society through fear. Because the CPC will score people on what they eat, what they wear, and what they say, the CPC control a person’s clothing, speech, and life. Furthermore, the CPC has also managed to control one’s love life. If a person marries an individual with a lower social score than them, their score will be reduced. Moreover, online dating apps in China have allowed the user to put their social score on their profile to attract others with similar scores. The data that was so freely given is now being used against the people to keep them subservient. In this twisted system, the words of John Adams ring true, “Liberty once lost is lost forever.” As the SCS continues to collect data and track people, it will also continue to suppress the people, who in turn will be unable to crawl out from the grip of the Chinese government.
Moreover, while having a low social credit score is bad, those who try to fight against this deplorable system will be punished to the point that their lives will be irreparably ruined through blacklisting.
The SCS negatively affects a person’s life and severely hinders how one functions or even survives in Chinese society. A low score on SCS is terrible, but if a person drops too low, s/he can be blacklisted. When a person is blacklisted, it means that they are not qualified to buy a plane ticket, banned from traveling on trains, buying property or even taking out a loan.” When a person is blacklisted it happens not only because they have a low score, but said person is being punished by the CPC. Most people who are blacklisted are those who fail to comply with SCS rules and try to fight back against the program. For example, Liu Hu is a journalist in China who has written about the CPC’s corruption and censorship of the press. Because of his articles and work, the Chinese government has deemed him a ‘dishonest person.’ The CPC has not only arrested and fined Liu Hu, but also has blacklisted him on the SCS. Liu Hu told The Globe and Mail, “There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to.”
For many Chinese citizens, becoming blacklisted is the worst thing that can happen to them. Getting a job will be nearly impossible as no one will hire a blacklisted person out of fear of being punished by the government. Blacklisting is a way to reprimand and completely isolate a person from the world and from other people. China is using this system to force people to comply with the country’s ideologies, and anyone that speaks out against this program will be blacklisted.
Liu Hu is not the only person to be blacklisted in China; estimates are that between 7.5 to 20 million people have already been blacklisted by the 42 pilot systems – which – means that 7.5 to 20 million Chinese citizens have had fundamental human rights revoked by a data collecting system that is designed to keep people in line.
Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to escape the SCS, as China’s surveillance system is almost Orwellian in its approach.
Blacklisted Chinese Journalist, Liu Hu.
China has implemented the most advanced surveillance system ever created, with cameras powered by artificial intelligence (AI) that use facial recognition, allowing specific individuals to be identified from the masses. While this surveillance can be used for good, like helping to identify criminals, the CPC uses it for other purposes as well, including invading privacy and rescinding liberty.
“China has an estimated 200 million surveillance cameras – four times as many as the United States.” By the end of 2020, that figure is supposed to increase to over 600 million, meaning that there is nearly one camera for every two citizens. This system will soon be automated and use AI software, so if a person commits an offense like walking their dog without a leash, the software will flag the infraction, and reduce their SCS score. As noted in the prior section, anyone who is blacklisted will be immediately prevented from boarding trains and buses, prevented access to specific businesses and restaurants, and other civil liberties. There truly is no hiding from the Chinese government, and this constant surveillance will help the police in finding and imprisoning anyone who tries to break the rules of the SCS.
T.S. Eliot once wrote, “I should really like to think there’s something wrong with me – Because, if there isn’t, then there’s something wrong with the world itself – and that’s much more frightening!” This quote accurately encapsulated my emotions as I wrote about this topic. I do hope my fears stem from a paranoid outlook rather than what may be a realistic future; although I cannot help but believe that the Communist Party of China will continue to misuse data to abuse its people. This powerful entity obtains more power, while its people watch helplessly as their human rights are being stripped away. The subservient behavior of the Chinese people is saddening, through inaction they have allowed the CPC to take complete control of their lives, dictating their actions and decisions. As a collective we need to realize our worth not only in ourselves but in our data. I am certain that if the citizens of China were to rally against this oppressive system, real positive change could be seen in the country. “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.” But as it stands, it seems Chinese citizens will remain under the thumb of the SCS and CPC.
 Data as Currency: What Value Are You Getting, Knowledge@ Wharton, Jane Barnett, August 27th 2019, https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/barrett-data-as-currency/
 Spend “Frivolously” and Be Penalized Under China’s New Social Credit System, Vox, Nadra Nittle, November 2nd 2018 – https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/11/2/18057450/china-social-credit-score-spend-frivolously-video-games
 Spend “Frivolously” and Be Penalized Under China’s New Social Credit System, Vox, Nadra Nittle, November 2nd 2018
 What Life Under China’s Social Credit System Could Be Like, YouTube, RealLifeLore, January 14th 2020 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZhVGsh2KZ8&t=128s
 What Life Under China’s Social Credit System Could Be Like, YouTube, RealLifeLore, January 14th 2020
 What Life Under China’s Social Credit System Could Be Like, YouTube, RealLifeLore, January 14th 2020
 The Letters of John and Abigail Adams, John Adams, 1776, December 30th 2003
 The Complicated Truth About China’s Social Credit System, Wired, Nicole Kobie, 7th June 2019 – https://www.wired.co.uk/article/china-social-credit-system-explained
 Chinese Blacklist an Early Glimpse of Sweeping New Social-Credit Control, The Globe and Mail, Nathan Vanderklippe, January 18th 2018 – https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/chinese-blacklist-an-early-glimpse-of-sweeping-new-social-credit-control/article37493300/
 Inside China’s Dystopian Dreams: A.I, Shame and Lots of Cameras, The New York Times, Paul Mozur, July 8th 2018 – https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/08/business/china-surveillance-technology.html
 China’s Behavior Monitoring System Bars Some from Travel, Purchasing Property, CBS News, April 24th 2018 – https://www.cbsnews.com/news/china-social-credit-system-surveillance-cameras/
 Moore, Alan, David Lloyd, Steve Whitaker, and Siobhan Dodds. V for Vendetta. New York: DC Comics, 2005.