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Brian Mark Weber / August 30, 2019

Scoring ‘Social Credit’

This practice is one import from China that Americans definitely do not want.

In one episode of the British dystopian TV series “Black Mirror,” people rate their interactions with others through smartphones. Although the system is voluntary, those who participate can increase their social status by receiving high ratings from others. However, a negative encounter results in an immediate ding to one’s “social-credit score,” making it difficult to rent a car or book a flight. 
What seemed like science fiction just a few years ago isn’t far from reality.

It’s happening now in China (no surprise), but the mechanisms are being put in place to bring this social-credit system to our own shores. Commercial aggregators are arguably already collecting the data necessary to build the framework.

Up to this point, we Americans haven’t expressed much concern over the collection of our social and consumer habits. But what’s happening in China is now getting the attention of those who once considered such ideas nothing more than a conspiracy theory.

Louise Matsakis writes at Wired that China’s chief administrative body “calls for the establishment of a nationwide scheme for tracking the trustworthiness of everyday citizens, corporations, and government officials.” Matsakis tempers the Western concern over social credit by reminding us that “these initiatives largely don’t rely on mass surveillance or supercharged artificial intelligence, and many citizens may not even know they exist.”

Nonetheless, millions of Chinese citizens are currently banned from purchasing airline tickets, renting a car, or sending their children to private schools due to low social-credit scores.

The problem in China as well as the U.S. is that those with all the power and information-gathering ability seem to be working on a long-term project of which we’re not being made aware. Is it any coincidence that Huawei, the Chinese communications giant, wants to get its hands on the building of the global 5G network?

Here at home, we’re being conditioned by social media to be obedient and politically correct in our thoughts and language, and trained by consumer-loyalty programs to seek rewards for certain behaviors.

But could a China-style social-credit system really be in America’s future?

The New American’s C. Mitchell Shaw argues, “Some components of it are already up and running. Earlier this year, the New York State Department of Financial Services cleared life-insurance companies to base premiums on what they see in your social-media posts. So, a selfie showing a cigar and a beer while eating a marbled steak could go into the math that raises your cost of insurance.”

Shaw adds, “It is not difficult to imagine the emerging ‘Social Credit Rating’ system in America turning into a method by which minor crimes or social infractions are punished by ‘offenders’ being deprived of basic means of communication, transportation, dining, and entertainment. Such people could quickly find themselves on the outside of society looking in.”

A range of U.S. companies are working on such ideas, or have already put them into action. Uber drivers can now downgrade the rating of a rude passenger, while Airbnb can ban guests from renting a house or apartment based on a negative review submitted by a previous host.

At Fast Company, Mike Elgan writes about PatronScan, a business that helps bars and restaurants identify fake IDs. Elgan says, “When customers arrive at a PatronScan-using bar, their ID is scanned. The company maintains a list of objectionable customers designed to protect venues from people previously removed for bad behavior. A ‘public’ list is shared among all PatronScan customers. So someone who’s banned by one bar in the U.S. is potentially banned by all the bars in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada.”

For now, there’s no immediate need to sound the alarm, but we may be facing a darker future.

And we should watch what happens in China, where the government keeps lists of citizens with a range of offenses as menial as walking a dog without a leash, and imposes bans on everything from keeping their kids out of the best schools to stopping them from leaving the country.

The need for a vigilant citizenry is more critical than ever — especially if keeping an eye on the powerful will one day lead to a low social-credit score.

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