Monitoring citizens: China’s Social Credit System

In 2014 the government in China published its plans for a Social Credit System (SCS). The aim of this highly extensive and indeed intrusive collection of data is described as “raising the honest mentality and credit levels of the entire society”. An emphasis is placed on trust and traditional Chinese values.

The SCS is due to be fully implemented by 2020, when all 1.4 billion citizens will have their activities tracked, and they will be given 'rewards' based on their economic practices and social actions. Punishments for getting into debt or behaving in a socially unacceptable or criminal manner could include bans from flights or high-speed trains, exclusion from certain careers and employment opportunities, and registration on a public blacklist. A high credit score can even allow better access to dating apps; a low one could result in enforced lower internet speeds permitted in homes. The children of citizens scoring poorly could also be affected by having access to the best schools denied, thus having a detrimental impact on their future prospects.

The data will be collected and analysed via the use of algorithms: however, information on how this will be accomplished is currently unclear. It is possible that certain behaviours or traits could be programmed in, allowing for bias in favour of the government’s political aims.

Further, ethnicity or religion could be included as a marker. This highlights another controversial issue: earlier this year, it was reported that Turkic ethnic Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province were being forced to download spyware onto their phones by the government. The app, named JingWang Weishi, is an Android spyware that blocks access to certain sites, searches infected phones for 'illegal' images, audio, recordings and video, and uploads this content to external servers. The details of the device, such as IMEI number, model and phone number, and manufacturer, are also stored. This type of information could therefore be included in the calculation of the SCS scores for this particular group of people, thereby certainly illustrating a bias against them.

It is interesting to note that social credit scores are not only calculated by the use of the government’s own data collection systems, but also include information gathered by private companies. Sesame Credit, which provides financial data and credit ratings, is operated by e-commerce giant Alibaba, the Chinese equivalent of Amazon.

Western companies are also contributing to this collection of data. All international organisations operating in the country have to comply with the Cybersecurity Law that came into force on 1 June 2017, and store the data of Chinese citizens on Chinese servers.

Various questions about the storage of the data of over a billion citizens are being raised. At present, there is no central SCS database; rather, this very valuable information is stored locally, at least for now, and local officials who control it are apparently loath to share it due to both its commercial and political value.

At the same time, hackers are anxious to steal personal data for the opportunities it can offer them to carry out fraudulent activities. Mention might also be made of state-sponsored groups from outside China who will target such information for various cyber espionage purposes.

One recent example of a prominent data theft in the country was seen in August this year, when a massive leak from Chinese hotel chain Huazhu Hotels Group appeared for sale on the Darknet: 130 million customers were believed to be affected by the breach, with the information on offer containing names, phone numbers, email addresses and bank account numbers.

However, leaving aside such well-publicised examples, it is also worth noting that China’s increasingly well-educated population has become much more aware of the importance of data privacy and security, with the general expectation that the big tech companies such as Baidu and Tencent, as well as the government, will protect their personal information.

In April this year, the artist Deng Yufeng highlighted the issue in an unusual way, when he bought the personal data of 346,000 Wuhan residents and displayed it at a local art gallery. The exhibition was closed two days later, and he admitted he had broken the law.

Therefore, although the SCS will offer a particularly tempting target for hackers both inside and outside China, the growing awareness of the importance of storing personal data securely should result in the government taking further steps to enact legislation to protect the information.

Perhaps the most common accusation levelled at the SCS is that it is an “Orwellian tool” designed to monitor social behaviour and allow more stringent political repression, leaving citizens increasingly subject to the control of the Chinese Communist Party.

Some critics argue that this description is somewhat over-exaggerated as, while it is certainly true that the government is collecting a huge amount of personal data, “Chinese authorities are not assigning a single score that will determine every aspect of every citizen’s life—at least not yet”. For now, there is no such thing as a national “social credit score”.

Australia’s Strategic Policy Institute has claimed that “the social credit system is not just shaping the behaviors of Chinese citizens beyond their border but international companies as well and has the potential to interfere directly in the sovereignty of other nations”. This is because businesses are forced to adhere to Beijing’s legislation.

For example, in April this year the Chinese Civil Aviation Administration accused a range of international airlines of “serious dishonesty” due to the way they had listed Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau on their websites: this could apparently “count against the airlines’ credit records and would lead to penalties under other laws, such as the Cybersecurity Law”.

Any analysis of China’s Social Credit System should ideally include at least a passing reference to the unique political and economic conditions in the country.

Very briefly, China is a one-party state ruled by the Communist Party of China. While in recent years the Party has continued to rule the country unopposed, a sophisticated and highly developed capitalist economy has also been allowed to develop, potentially posing a serious risk to the state’s political and social control over the population.

To counter this, the government, led by President Xi Jinping, is now embracing the use of new technology to instil a greater degree of control over the Chinese people.

When the SCS comes fully online in 2020, the state will be in possession of a huge amount of data which will aid this process, and allow further political and economic control over all citizens living in the country, and all businesses operating there.