Social Credit Systems

Street cred takes on a whole new meaning. 

“Nosedive” is the first episode of the third series of Black Mirror. The episode is set in a
world where people can rate each other from one to five stars for every interaction.

How many times have you heard someone say “have you seen the Black Mirror episode about that?!” The so-called “dystopian future” it’s supposed to warn us about doesn’t seem so far away. Enter China’s Social Credit System (and Season 3, Episode 1).

China’s State Council issued a report called “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System” back in 2014. In it, they alerted Chinese citizens of their plan to unveil a personal scorecard for every person and business in China, based on their level of trustworthiness, and that participation would be mandatory for every Chinese citizen by the year 2020. Though it’s still unclear how, exactly, it will work, it will attempt to rate people in four areas: “honesty in government affairs” (政务诚信), “commercial integrity” (商务诚信), “societal integrity” (社会诚信), and “judicial credibility” (司法公信).

Data is currently being collected on shopping habits, credit rating, online behavior, friend connections, and anything else that might be used to give China’s 1.3 billion people a score from 350-950. People and businesses with higher scores will find it easier to do business (anything from signing contracts to checking into their hotels faster) – people with low scores, not so much. It’s easy to imagine the rating being used in housing and school decisions, hiring, loan applications, and the like. According to Wired Magazine (UK edition), on September 25, 2016, the State Council General Office updated a policy titled “Warning and Punishment Mechanisms for Persons Subject to Enforcement for Trust-Breaking.” The policy states that “If trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere.”

For instance, it’s suggested that people with low ratings will have slower internet speeds; restricted access to restaurants, nightclubs or golf courses; or that their right to travel freely abroad could be removed. Scores will influence a person’s rental applications, their ability to get insurance or a loan, and even social-security benefits. Citizens with low scores will not be hired by certain employers and will be forbidden from obtaining some jobs in civil service, journalism and legal fields (where of course you must be trustworthy). Low-rated citizens will also be restricted when it comes to enrolling themselves or their children in high-paying private schools. Chinese officials have said that the social credit system will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

Photo via Wired UK.

In addition, the scores of friends and acquaintances  will have an effect on yours as well! If you are connected to someone in some way (be it a relative, co-worker, or an online friend you communicate with often), it’s in your best interests to make sure their score is high.

The possibilities for discussion are endless. If you have friends who have a son who cheats on a state-mandated test in school, to what extent are you penalized for having a relationship with those parents? The parents will certainly be penalized for raising a child who cheats. Can you recoup any lost points if you cut ties with them? And what of the child? How long does that stigma stick with him?

It’s also likely the system can be manipulated with artificial behavior and hacking. If your score is low, what’s to say you can’t take a bunch of people down with you? 

And what if someone makes an accusation against you that is not easily irrefutable? Reputation is your greatest currency in this new world. China has already begun publicly shaming debtors on government websites.

Is this social transparency or a way to mandate obedience? Will it truly lead to a more trustworthy world?