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China Turns Big Data into Big Brother

The country wants to assign citizens a score that determines their eligibility for everything from loans to education.
November 29, 2016

It was a drab, chill day in November, and the clocks were striking thirteen. As the woman passed through Hangzhou Railway Station, she moved quickly through the ticket gates—though not quickly enough to avoid detection by the transport authority, which noticed her failure to swipe the correct transit pass. It was too late. She had received a black mark on government records that would make it harder than ever for her to travel in the future.

That’s a reimagining of the introduction to George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it’s also set to become a reality for citizens of China if the government’s dream of an authoritarian big-data scheme comes to fruition.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Chinese government is now testing systems that will be used to create digital records of citizens’ social and financial behavior. In turn, these will be used to create a so-called social credit score, which will determine whether individuals have access to services, from travel and education to loans and insurance cover. Some citizens—such as lawyers and journalists—will be more closely monitored.

Planning documents apparently describe the system as being created to “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.” The Journal claims that the system will at first log “infractions such as fare cheating, jaywalking and violating family-planning rules” but will be expanded in the future—potentially even to Internet activity.

Some aspects of the system are already in testing, but there are some challenges to implementing such a far-reaching apparatus. It’s difficult to centralize all that data, check it for accuracy, and process it, for example—let alone feed it back into the system to control everyday life. And China has data from 1.4 billion people to handle.

As the Financial Times reported earlier this year, it’s not currently well-equipped to do so. Speaking about the nation’s attempts to probe citizen data to measure creditworthiness, Wang Zhicheng of Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management told the newspaper, “China has a long way to go before it actually assigns everyone a score. If it wants to do that, it needs to work on the accuracy of the data. At the moment it’s ‘garbage in, garbage out.’”

Not that such issues are likely to stop officials from pursuing such a goal. The nation’s citizens already have to deal with strict Internet censorship, and Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba, recently called on the government to use sweeping data analysis to identify criminals.

If China can work out how to corral its data across government departments, cities, and districts, the scoring system will simply be another Big Brother tactic in the nation’s increasingly totalitarian approach to governance.

(Read more: The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Bloomberg, “The Best and Worst Internet Experience in the World”)

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