Big Brother China’s Social Credit Score

Imagine, you’re a Chinese citizen and you walk up to the ticket counter at the railway station and ask to buy a round-trip ticket, Beijing to Shanghai. The clerk asks for proof of identity (or collects it via the app on your smartphone) and checks if your “social credit score” is sufficiently high enough to allow you to purchase the train ticket.

It’s then you begin processing the three times you jaywalked earlier in the month and wonder whether the facial recognition system had picked you out of the handful of other jaywalkers scooting cross the multilane road to make it to work on time.

The clerk advises you that you’re out of luck: While there are seats on the fast-train, your social score is not up to snuff and therefore you are denied the purchase of the ticket. Your options dwindle rapidly—if they are denying purchase of a train ticket, then a ticket for a flight from Beijing to Shanghai will be out of the question. If you want to attend that meeting in Shanghai, you’re either going to walk or bicycle there or participate via a teleconference, because your social score just bit you on the butt.

Think the above is impossible?

It’s happening today.

According to the salacious Chinese website Global Times, more than 4.25 million high-speed train trips and 11.14 million flights have been denied to individuals because their social score was too low. The irony is that these individuals volunteered to be a part of the vanguard of Chinese citizens to sign themselves up for the social score monitoring and calculation system. The social score currently is voluntary, but come 2020, all 1.4 billion-plus Chinese citizens will find themselves in the game, no options.

Then there is the “credit scoring,” which has been evolving since 2006 and has picked up steam with the arrival of eight separate credit reporting systems operating concurrently with the government’s social credit. This scoring is occurring across multiple platforms as they strive to evolve the Chinese equivalent of the FICO scoring, but it isn’t a centralized scoring system. Rather, they are eight independent silos, all striving to the credit scoring system of record—that was, until May 23, when Baihang Credit attempted to corral the eight firms in a joint effort.

Similar in nature to the social credit system, the financial credit scoring is based on the financial responsibility index of a given individual; their social network contacts, which are rated for suitability; and their online behavior. All are measurements that can be made without having governmental access, as the access to the Chinese social networks is sufficient. Remember when your mother whispered to stay away from that boy or girl? Now, in China, she was right: You are being rated by the company you keep.

In her piece, “Baihang and the Eight Personal Credit Programmes: A credit leap forward,” China social network watcher and editor of “What’s on Weibo” Manya Koetse notes that this is the beginning, and much water needs to pass under the bridge. The paranoid may fear the sharing of data across the various firms will allow too much data to be accumulated, while others note that Baihang Credit may come under the scrutiny of the Chinese cybersecurity laws on secondary use of individual data.

Why the “excitement” over the arrival of credit scores? Retailers and vendors are rewarding those with high financial credit scores with free product samples, extended test drives of vehicles and discounts. In addition, there are bragging rights: Many with high scores are not shy about posting it for all to see.

Between the social credit and the financial credit, the Chinese are now moving toward having a 360-degree optic into their citizens. The year 2020 is just 18 months away, so we shouldn’t have to wait long.

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Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former Senior Security Advisor to Cisco and served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit: Senior Online Safety.

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