December 06, 2018

Big data, little control – When technology has a flipside

Imagine this: A score assesses what kind of person you are. Do you abide by the rules or do you break them? Your personal behavior score then determines whether you’re able to get a loan or mortgage, send your kid to a good private school, book a plane ticket to visit relatives or get that dream job you’ve always wanted. The lower your rank, the slimmer your chances are of getting any of it.

Only that this isn’t a dystopian, ‘Black Mirror’-esque fantasy, it’s already a reality. In China, millions of people (and even companies) are enrolled in a Social Credit System (SCS; 社会信用体系 shèhuì xìnyòng tǐxì). A person’s financial and moral behavior determines their score: Spreading fake news online, getting a traffic ticket, jaywalking and smoking in nonsmoking areas can lower one’s rate. Meanwhile, it goes up by doing things like donating to charity, volunteering, recycling or buying healthy baby food online.

Dishonesty is punished, while obedience is rewarded. According to the overall „Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014–2020)“ issued by the State Council, the SCS will focus on the four areas: honesty in government affairs, commercial integrity, societal integrity and judicial credibility.
The goal of the initiative is “raising the awareness for integrities and the level of credibility within society. It should “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.

It already has wide-reaching consequences: In February 2017, the country’s Supreme People’s Court announced that 6.15 million of its citizens had been banned from taking flights over the past four years for social misdeeds. It had blocked more than 4 million high-speed train trips by the end of April, leaving many citizens with low scores stranded at airports and train stations.

What we’re seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg. The program is currently in a pilot phase and is expected to be rolled out nationwide by 2020. Considering that China is the most populous country in the world with a staggering 1.4 billion people roaming about, it’s a massive data collection scheme.

To many tech-savvy, smartphone-clutching digital natives, this hardly comes as a surprise. Our social and virtual lives have become increasingly intertwined and technology influences our every move.

I have to admit: When booking a holiday, I am searching for inspiration on Google, I then book a flight on fare aggregators like Swoodoo, find the latest hotel on sites like booking.com, exciting things to do on Tripadvisor and the tastiest restaurants on Yelp. Once I am there, I keep friends and family up to date by posting geo-tagged photos on Instagram.

Back at home, Amazon monitors my consumer habits and targets me with specifically tailored ads. For the millions of users who are on Facebook – which I am not, and will never be –, the community would serve them personalized news. Wearables track our fitness and biometric data while cloud-connected sensors in our home devices make life more convenient. CCTV monitors our stroll to the coffee shop, where we pay for a cup by breezily swiping our phones.

If this makes your head spin and you’re increasingly worried about surveillance of your online activities, you’re not alone. Nearly eight in ten young adults in the US think the government is tracking their phone calls and emails, a survey by the Pew Research Center has found. Surprisingly, this fear goes down with age, as only six in ten adults over the age of fifty share the concern of being monitored.

Technology enables us to make decisions in split seconds and lets us rely on a seemingly infinite stream of crowd-sourced information. Perhaps some of us are starting to be more careful what information we’re willing to divulge, with the data abuse scandal surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica on our collective minds.

In his book The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly describes a future where the watchers and the watched will transparently track each other:

„Our central choice now is whether this surveillance is a secret, one-way panopticon – or a mutual, transparent kind of ‚coveillance‘ that involves watching the watchers.“

We have the world’s wealth of information at our fingertips, 24/7. But blink twice, and the tools we’ve eagerly embraced to navigate quickly through our hypercompetitive world may morph into far more than what we’ve signed up for.

PS: For those who haven’t seen it: Take your time & have fun with „Nosedive“ from the British science fiction series Black Mirror. The episode showcases a dystopian society using a technology where – through eye implants and mobile devices – everyone shares their daily activities and rates their interactions with others on a one-to-five star scale, which affects that person’s overall rating. One’s current average can be seen by others and has significant influence on their socioeconomic status.

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