By J. N. Thursday August 29 2019

  • In China, scoring citizens’ behavior is official government policy.
  • U.S. companies are increasingly doing something similar, outside the law.

China’s social credit system? It’s a technology-enabled, surveillance-based nationwide program designed to nudge citizens toward better behavior. The ultimate goal is to “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step,” according to the Chinese government.

But such systems, it turns out, are not unique to China. A parallel system is developing in the United States, in part as the result of Silicon Valley and technology-industry user policies, and in part by surveillance of social media activity by private companies.

Here are some of the elements of America’s growing social credit system:

INSURANCE COMPANIES

The New York State Department of Financial Services announced earlier this year (link) that life insurance companies can base premiums on what they find in your social media posts.

PATRONSCAN

A company called PatronScan (link) sells three products designed to help bar and restaurant owners manage customers. PatronScan helps spot fake IDs—and troublemakers. The company maintains a list of objectionable customers designed to protect venues from people previously removed for “fighting, sexual assault, drugs, theft, and other bad behavior,” according to its website. 

A descriptive analysis is provided by Nicholas Loubere, in: ‘The Global Age of the Algorithm: Social Credit’ (.pdf link):

The “Chinese social credit system” is a national “trust-building” initiative that is currently being piloted until potential renewal in 2020, and some punishments on citizens have already been placed since 2018.

“Social credit” is referred-to by the Chinese government as a ‘broad range of efforts to improve market security and public safety by increasing integrity and mutual trust in society’.

The 2014 Social Credit System Construction Plan Outline (2014–2020), translated by China Law Translate (link), states main objective of social credit is to ensure compliance with legal obligations.

The purpose of scoring citizens, companies and public institutions lies in a way to track the extent to which those follow existing laws.

Deeper into the text do we find hints of how the social credit seeks to enforce compliance to laws.

Phrased as a way to “honour” trustworthiness and “shame” untrustworthiness throughout Chinese society, social credit plans on using data from a wide network of private and public companies to help paint a picture of each citizen’s “trustworthiness”:

It can also award points for charitable donations or even taking one’s own parents to the doctor.

Punishments can be harsh, including bans on leaving the country, using public transportation, checking into hotels, hiring for high-visibility jobs, or acceptance of children to private schools.

It can also result in slower internet connections and social stigmatization in the form of registration on a public blacklist.

The Chinese government also shares lists with technology platforms. So, for example, if someone criticizes the government on Weibo, their kids might be ineligible for acceptance to an elite school.

Public shaming is also part of China’s social credit system. Pictures of blacklisted people in one city were shown between videos on TikTok in a trial, and the addresses of blacklisted citizens were shown on a map on WeChat.

Additionally, in the U.S.:

UBER AND AIRBNB

Airbnb can disable your account for life for any reason it chooses, and it reserves the right to not tell you the reason. The company’s canned message includes the assertion that “This decision is irreversible and will affect any duplicated or future accounts.

WHATSAPP

You can be banned from communications apps, too. For example, you can be banned on WhatsApp if too many other users block you. You can also get banned for sending spam, threatening messages, trying to hack or reverse-engineer the WhatsApp app, or using the service with an unauthorized app.

The most disturbing attribute of a social credit system is not that it’s invasive, but that it’s extralegal. Crimes are punished outside the legal system, which means no presumption of innocence, no legal representation, no judge, no jury, and often no appeal. In other words, it’s an alternative legal system where the accused have fewer rights.

Social credit systems are an end-run around the pesky complications of the legal system. Unlike China’s government policy, the social credit system emerging in the U.S. is enforced by private companies. If the public objects to how these laws are enforced, it can’t elect new rule-makers.

An increasing number of societal “privileges” related to transportation, accommodations, communications, and the rates we pay for services (like insurance) are either controlled by technology companies or affected by how we use technology services. And Silicon Valley’s rules for being allowed to use their services are getting stricter.

If current trends hold, it’s possible that in the future a majority of misdemeanors and even some felonies will be punished not by Washington, D.C., but by Silicon Valley. It’s a slippery slope away from democracy and toward corporatocracy.

In other words, in the future, law enforcement may be determined less by the Constitution and legal code, and more by end-user license agreements.

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