We are all familiar with the Credit Information Bureau (India) Limited, popularly known as CIBIL credit rating system. It rates you based on your financial behavior. Without a good enough CIBIL score you don’t get good loans or good credit card offers. It’s so deeply entrenched in our financial system that it makes it hard for an average individual to navigate the economic landscape of our country.
Now, compare this to a society where ‘you’ are rated by the government based on your trustworthiness. Where your ‘citizen score’ follows you wherever you go. A higher score unlocks access to a faster internet service, fast-tracked visa, public amenities, etc. If you criticise the government publicly or disregard the government’s directives, your score decreases. A society where the moment you step out of the door, your actions are monitored through a vast network of CCTV cameras. If you jump a red light, make a turn without the indicators on or even jaywalk, the chances are, the police will show up at your door. Sounds like a chapter straight out of George Orwell’s 1984 right?
An Orwellian dystopia in the making
All the scenarios that we mentioned here are going to be a reality in China in the next few years. The country is on its way to implementing an intricate system of surveillance that mines and stores detailed profiles of all Chinese citizens. Why? To set up a ‘citizen score’ in order to promote ‘good behaviour’ among the people of China. While the system is meant to reduce crime and terrorism (among other things), this digital eye will pose a new threat to civil liberties in a country that already has one of the most oppressive and controlling governments in the world. In 2020, the Communist Party of China is finally going to enforce this multilevel data-gathering system it has dreamed of for decades. It is indeed alarming, especially when you consider that China was never known to play by the rules.
While the Chinese government has long scrutinised individual citizens for evidence of disloyalty to the regime, only now is it beginning to implement a comprehensive, always updated record on each citizen’s political inclinations, remarks, connections, and even consumer habits. And since it’s China, it is extremely hard to tell what kind of data will be considered to operate this civilian scoring system.
Experts think that it will take far more data into account than the CIBIL or Fico score. While the Indian and Western rating system only tracks simple financial trails like if you have paid back your debts on time or if you manage your money well; the Chinese scoring system is based on the social media and online shopping data mined by the government without an iota of regard for consumer privacy.
What’s even more worrying is that the behaviour of friends and relatives of a Chinese citizen will affect his or her score. If your friend is critical of the government’s policies, it may lower your score. The trickle-down effect of this would be a point where the scoring system will isolate ‘bad people’ from their friends and the rest of society. So, in a few years’ time, if you are one of those ‘bad citizens’ in China, you won’t be able to travel in trains, use public facilities, or leave your hometown. In other words, China is selectively raising a population that sways to the tunes of their masters while suppressing their independent thinking.
What does this mean to the world?
No individual anywhere in the world would expect to be subjected to this kind of treatment by their own political leaders. But at the same time, it opens up questions about the role private companies play when it comes to peeking into the lives of common people. Is it ethical for private entities to assist, or forcefully share private individual data to governments for the sake of national security? I honestly don’t know. But what I know for sure is that, if not used properly, this data can be used by the government for all kinds of misdeeds, including voter manipulation, bypassing a select community for political gains, creating social unrest etc. to name a few.
Alibaba – the Chinese version of Amazon, and Tencent – the owner of WeChat and Epic Games, could sweep data on almost every Chinese citizen if the government wants them to, for tabulating an individual’s ‘citizen score’. Points are awarded if you are buying, for e.g. a diaper, and reduced if you buy alcohol or cigarettes, and all this data can be tracked by your online shopping behaviour. It’s important to remember that many apps owned by these two tech giants are banned by the Indian government. Thus, the establishment of this all-seeing eye is sure to set the alarms ringing for civil liberties and privacy advocates across the world.
The big brother nobody asked for
According to an estimate, there are approximately 200 million surveillance cameras in China today, and this figure is expected to touch 450 million mark by the end of this year. Currently, 100% of Beijing is covered by CCTV cameras. I am ok with surveillance as long as the cameras are placed in public places. But under no circumstances should I have to wake up one day and see a camera pointed at my door. I can’t bear the thought where my everyday life is exposed to the government’s scrutiny. This article is a stark reminder to democracies around the world to denounce the kind of voyeuristic behaviour that doesn’t see the difference between surveillance and violating basic human rights.