Economy

Big data, big brother?

A new rating system for public behaviour starts to spread

Train-w

Only for those on their best behaviour...

Earlier this week a salutary tale appeared on the website of the Jiangxi government. A local man called Chen wanted to buy a high- speed rail ticket to visit his family over the Chinese New Year. When he approached the counter at his local station his request was refused. A court had put him on a blacklist for failing to repay a Rmb6,000 ($878) debt for building work. According to jxnews.com.cn our hapless traveller was “forced to acknowledge the consequences of his dishonest behaviour”.

Now Chen may not be real –  the moralising tone suggests that the government communications team might have thought him up – but the ticket blacklist certainly exists.

It came into existence about three years ago, aiming to “disrupt” the lives of defaulting customers. By the end of last year it amounted to more than 6 million names – of which 4.9 million are barred from buying airplane tickets, and 1.65 million can’t get a seat on a train.

The scheme has been credited with doubling the number of debt recoveries at the local courts. In fact, such was its success that it now forms the backbone of a bigger scheme that’s designed to improve consumer behaviour – the so-called ‘Social Credit System’.

Due to be rolled out nationwide by 2020, the premise for the programme is simple: capture vast amounts of personal data, slice it up and score it, and issue people with a single, all purpose, rating.

Those with high scores will win certain privileges such as cheaper bus tickets, priority enrolment in schools and deposit-free reservations of rental cars and hotel rooms.

Those with low ratings could be banned from first-class train travel, stays at luxury hotels and even lose their rights to online shopping.

The idea is that nice things in China are for nice people, and that good behaviour earns you more freedoms.

A frequently reprinted cartoon in the media at the moment shows a man with good credit standing at a crossroad where all paths are open to him. In the second frame a man with a poorer credit score is surrounded by signs saying “road blocked”.

The system’s unofficial slogan is “the trustworthy can go anywhere, while the dishonest won’t be able to take a single step”. The government says the new approach is needed because too many people are playing fast and loose with the country’s rules and regulations. It’s all too easy to take a loan, default and move to another city. Or worse, set up a polluting factory, ruin the local environment and then head off and do the same elsewhere.

Initially the premise for the scheme was to track business owners, improve food safety, and boost air and water quality. But the opportunity to shape individual behaviour was all too tempting for the authorities, and the system fits neatly with another major drive – improving the “quality” of China’s people.

According to government documents released in September, the intention is to encourage “an upward, charitable, sincere and mutually helpful social atmosphere”.

“Sincerity and promise-keeping are to become common pursuits and behavioural norms for the entire society,” it added.

The document also said people with low scores will be barred from public office, find it harder to buy property, and may have difficulties travelling abroad.

Yet little is known about how the score will be calculated. The government is currently in the process of linking up the databases concerned: tax, police, courts, environmental protection and so forth. The banks and credit agencies are also working to expand the information they hold on their customers.

The final element in the monitoring system are technology giants Tencent and Alibaba – both are set to play an important role in the new scheme. They both process huge troves of information, through social media apps like WeChat (Tencent) and online shopping platforms Taobao and Tmall (Alibaba).

Alibaba’s Sesame Credit has also been providing personal credit ratings to people without a traditional credit history since 2015. To do so, the company looks at how often they shop online, how much they purchase and what kind of goods they buy. It doesn’t make a secret of the fact that its scoring makes a moral judgement on how people spend their time online.

For instance, nappies are good and suggest a sense of responsibility, according to Caixin Weekly, which interviewed Sesame’s technology director Li Yingyun. “Someone who plays video games for 10 hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person,” he said.

The integration of similar kinds of data is growing all the time. Baihe, China’s largest matchmaking website, now allows clients to include Sesame Credit figures in their profiles and there are stories that Tencent looks at how often spouses talk to each other via WeChat to measure the health of their marriages (less is more does not count for Tencent).

Even if you don’t subscribe to Sesame Credit, Alibaba still collects reams of personal data – your correspondent, an avid Taobao shopper, has now bought so much on the site she has earned the right to return goods with no questions asked.

Details of how Sesame and WeChat will contribute to the national scheme have not been announced. But 43 cities and counties have been testing pilot schemes since 2010 and Shanghai launched the most complete system to date – the wonderfully named ‘Honest Shanghai’ – last November.

The app uses facial recognition software to match a person to their ID card number and compiles data from 100 government agencies to generate a rating of excellent, good or bad, Xinhua said.

As of last week more than 15 million people have applied for a rating – which takes 24 hours to generate – and 7 million businesses have also been accessed. “Through this app, we hope our residents learn that they’ll be rewarded if they’re honest. That will lead to a positive energy in society,” said Shao Zhiqing, the official in charge of the scheme

Yet public opinion is divided on the new uses being made of personal data. After years of watching people get ahead by breaking the rules or exploiting personal connections, many like the idea that there will be tangible benefits to obeying the law and behaving in a civic manner. The sceptics are more concerned about the Orwellian overtones, however, as well as the risk of a huge data breach. They also dislike the fact that the government is assessing them, and in ways that might penalise people simply for holding the authorities more accountable. For instance, an early version of the scheme in Jiangsu invoked ire when it emerged that petitioning – the taking of grievances to officials at the provincial or national level in order to right a local wrong – would result in points reduction.

Others have expressed unease that things such as how often they visit their parents might be taken into account. “I like the idea in principle but it’s not transparent enough. How do they calculate our score?” demanded one netizen.

Others feared that the new scores will be similar to the “good citizen certificates” that the Japanese gave out during their military occupation of China or the detailed workfiles that companies kept on their employees at the peak of Maoism.

“Who are they to say I am a good person,” asked one irritated netizen. “It should be us rating them,” he insisted instead.


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