Now that we are approaching the end of our time at the Flatiron School, we have started to focus more on writing algorithms to practice for technical interviews. I've found that practicing algorithms has been a good challenge - I enjoy the puzzle-solving aspect to them and it works a more mathematical part of the mind than Web Development areas. It can definitely be frustrating at times, especially when I don't even know how to get started, but solving a tough algorithm has been one of the more rewarding aspects of my software development journey thus far.
For this post, I wanted to broach a more controversial subject that involves a government implementing an algorithm at massive scale. I've been both fascinated and concerned by the intersection of technology and society over the past few years, so this topic caught my attention immediately. The issue at hand is China's development of its Social Credit System (社会信用体系).
The system is intended to standardize the socioeconomic reputation of both businesses and individuals, or "Social Credit". By 2020, all social credit scores for China's 1.4 billion people will be publically available. Since China's economy and living standards have skyrocketed in the past decades, it hasn't been able to develop the type of credit scores we are used to in the West. This allowed for people to default on loans or businesses to use shady practices without much backlash. The social credit system is an attempt to answer the question of who to trust. The guidance for the system called for a nationwide system that would allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven, while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”
While the system is planned to launch in 2020, several Chinese companies have been licensed to start trials of social credit systems and develop the software and algorithms to calculate credit. The most prominent of these include Sesame Credit (owned by Alibaba) and Didi Chuxing (China's largest ride-sharing service). Sesame's pilot system determines a social credit rating from 350 - 950 based on "a thousand variables across five data sets".
Similar to credit scores, one's social credit rating can slide up and down based on their personal behavior. However, that is where the similarities end.
China's government agencies and companies are collecting massive amounts of data on its citizens, like social media activity, health records, and online purchases. Combined with its 200 million hidden cameras and facial recognition software, China's social tracking infrastructure makes it an unsettlingly perfect place for a social credit system.
The precise factors that the algorithm will use are secret, but some examples of infractions are bad driving, smoking in non-smoking zones, playing too many video games, and posting fake news. Examples of actions that would boost your score include purchasing diapers for a child, donating to charity, turning in a lost wallet, or picking up garbage.
At this point, you may be wondering how the social credit system will end up affecting Chinese citizens' daily lives. How could playing too much PS4 impact their rights? The answer is: significantly.
If individuals have higher social credit scores, they enjoy lower energy bills, improved visibility on dating websites, and may rent things without a deposit. Chinese hospitals are also experimenting with social credit scores - enabling people with higher scores to skip a line and receive treatment immediately.
If someone has a low score, they may find it harder to purchase luxury goods, rent/buy a house, find a job, or purchase a train/plane ticket. Others may find it difficult to enroll their children in their desired school, may be publicly shamed at movie theaters, could have their internet speeds throttled, or have their dog taken away
If all this sounds exactly like an episode of Black Mirror to you, that's because it is! The series 3 episode "Nosedive" explored this precise scenario. In this world, people rate each other from 1-5 stars for every interaction they have. One's current score can be seen by the public, causing an intense obsession by the episode's protagonist regarding her own score. I found this episode poignantly captures the phenomenon of social media obsession while also painting a haunting picture of future autocratic regimes' uses of big data.
I remember this episode was especially ominous to me, even though it wasn't as terrifying as many of the show's other episodes. It really brought out the worst of social media and how it plays into the human mind's intense desire for status and acceptance. It also seemed so plausible in real life given how ubiquitous social media and data tracking have gotten. When I heard that China was developing a similar system, it was clear to me that the future is now. I think that democratic governments like the US must get ahead of this and enact legislation both to restrict itself and private corporations from immorally collecting data on its citizens. Otherwise the dystopia presented by Black Mirror and the reality of China's social credit system could reach without us knowing it.
Another aspect of China's system that shocked me was how supportive people are of it - a survey shows that 80% of respondents either somewhat or strongly approve of social credit systems. This statistic made me realize that coming from a Western context, the idea of a social credit system seems Orwellian and completely backwards. However, Chinese citizens are closely aware that the government has been tracking them for years, and in a way this system merely digitizes the practice. Also the system will likely promote good behavior and dissuade people and businesses from stealing and committing fraud, so it is understandable that people could support it.
Finally, researching China's developing system further reinforced to me how powerful big data and algorithms can be. To think that a country of 1.4 billion people could have their rights controlled by an algorithm is mind blowing to me. It really makes the importance of ethical technologists and policy leaders even more pressing in the years and decades to come.
Thanks for reading!