China, What’s Your Score?

The assimilation of the social credit scoring system that began in 2014 is well underway in China. Citizens are adjusting their behavior so that they may continue to be eligible to receive goods and services. For now, those participating in the system are doing it voluntarily. In 2020, there will be no opting out; all will participate.

The National Public Information Center’s recent annual report detailed how the “social credit” score affected 5.5 million Chinese citizens, barring them from purchasing train tickets, a popular and efficient form of travel intra-China.

While that number may seem high, it’s low in comparison to the 17.5 million Chinese citizens who were barred from purchasing airplane tickets because their “social credit” score was subpar.

And a smaller number—128 individuals—were barred from foreign travel.

When your population is 1.4 billion and growing, these numbers are infinitesimal. After all, the number of passenger train trips running per year within China, according to Statista, is more than 3 billion. Similarly, the number of air journeys per year, according Airport Council International, is more than 8 billion. The number of Chinese with passports is estimated to be about 120 million.

The government is quick to say that the individual’s social credit was affected by their financial irresponsibility. Not paying taxes is cited with frequency.

Big Brother Present?

The depth of information being collected on Chinese citizens through official channels may smack of “Orwellian” data acquisition. It is.

According to the report, the center accumulated a spartan 14.21 million pieces of information that showed improper behavior—jaywalking, taking seats on trains reserved for seniors, not paying taxes, fraud, false advertising, being disruptive—to determine the social credit score of those barred from travel.

Last year I wrote of how more than 4.4 million high-speed train trips and 11.14 million flights had been denied to individuals because their social score was too low.

The irony, of course, is that participation in the social credit score system is “voluntary.”

What is the Goal?

One goal of the program is to limit travel of the untrustworthy. The South China Morning Post said it best: “To allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven, while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

How might this play out as it expands in utility and participation?

Want to attend university? What’s your “social credit” score? What’s your parents’ and/or grandparents’ scores?

Students taking a media class at Henan University were recently tasked to add a minimum 1,000 new “WeChat” friends as a graduation requirement (adding 1,667 friends would give the student a perfect score). The professor noted the forced social engagement would help the students in the business world. But, what if they “friend” someone whose social credit score is on the downward slide, and now they are being dragged along with them?

It isn’t just in the West where who you associate with on social networks is defining; it’s an identified component of the social credit system in China.

For those pursuing the American dream-like existence of home, mobility and stability, leveraging other people’s money (i.e. banks) will require a “social credit” number within a given set of parameters. No longer will it be the equivalent of the Chinese FICO scores (which already exist); access to loans to purchase a refrigerator, a car, a condo or a house will be determined by the answer to the question, “What’s your score?”

One can imagine that in lieu of asking an individual one meets at a social gathering, “What’s your sign?” the second utterance out of one’s mouth after “Hello” will be, “What’s your social score?” Who wants to associate with an individual who could pull your numbers down and limit you and your family’s horizons?

Living in China come 2020 will be defined by: What’s your score?

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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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