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  • China's Social Credit System seeks to assign citizens scores, engineer social behaviour
  • By Vicky Xiuzhong Xu and Bang Xiao
  • 01/04/2018
  • Contributed by: Andy ( 8 articles in 2018 )
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Chinese authorities claim they have banned more than 7 million people deemed "untrustworthy" from boarding flights, and nearly 3 million others from riding on high-speed trains, according to a report by the country's National Development and Reform Commission.

Key points:

  • Various pilot projects have been launched throughout China ahead of 2020
  • Chinese authorities use new advanced technologies to crackdown on crime
  • Beijing could engineer society if it combines technology with its credit system

The announcements offer a glimpse into Beijing's ambitious attempt to create a Social Credit System (SCS) by 2020 — that is, a proposed national system designed to value and engineer better individual behaviour by establishing the scores of 1.4 billion citizens and "awarding the trustworthy" and "punishing the disobedient".

Liu Hu, a 43-year-old journalist who lives in China's Chongqing municipality, told the ABC he was "dumbstruck" to find himself caught up in the system and banned by airlines when he tried to book a flight last year.

PHOTO: Chinese journalist Liu Hu was "dumbstruck" to find himself caught up on the bad side of the country's social credit system. (Supplied: Liu Hu)

Mr Liu is on a "dishonest personnel" list — a pilot scheme of the SCS — because he lost a defamation lawsuit in 2015 and was asked by the court to pay a fine that is still outstanding according to the court record.

"No one ever notified me," Mr Liu, who claims he paid the fine, said.

"It's baffling how they just put me on the blacklist and kept me in the dark."

Like the other 7 million citizens deemed to be "dishonest" and mired in the blacklist, Mr Liu has also been banned from staying in a star-rated hotel, buying a house, taking a holiday, and even sending his nine-year-old daughter to a private school.

And just last Monday, Chinese authorities announced they would also seek to freeze the assets of those deemed "dishonest people".

Bonus points for donating blood and volunteer work



SenseTime surveillance software identifying customers' movement patterns
PHOTO: Surveillance software identifying customers' patterns at a department store in Beijing. (Reuters: Thomas Peter)

As the national system is still being fully realised, dozens of pilot social credit systems have already been tested by local governments at provincial and city levels.

For example, Suzhou, a city in eastern China, uses a point system where every resident is rated on a scale between 0 and 200 points — every resident starts from the baseline of 100 points.

One can earn bonus points for benevolent acts and lose points for disobeying laws, regulations, and social norms.

PHOTO: The Shenzhen traffic police website publishes the details of jaywalkers. (Supplied: Shenzhen Traffic Police)
According to a 2016 report by local police, the top-rated Suzhou citizen had 134 points for donating more than one litre of blood and doing more than 500 hours of volunteer work.

The city said the next step was to use the credit system to punish people for transgressions such as dodging transport fares, cheating in video games, and restaurant no-shows.

In Shenzhen, authorities recently launched the use of facial recognition and online shaming to crackdown on small crimes such as jaywalking.

In Xiamen, where the development of a local social credit system started as early as 2004, authorities reportedly automatically apply messages to the mobile phone lines of blacklisted citizens.

"The person you're calling is dishonest," whoever calls a lowly-rated person will be told before the call is put through.

Citizens profiled by their consumption behaviour


Private companies in China have also run pilot programs using complex analytical systems to profile their customers, further advancing various technologies — such as facial recognition and online shaming — that could be used with official 2020 rollouts.

PHOTO: Zhima (Sesame) Credit scores for online shopping giant Alibaba are used for profiling. (Supplied)
For example, Sesame Credit is a private credit system developed by the Alibaba-affiliated company Ant Financial.

The system uses algorithms and data from Alipay, Alibaba's massively popular payment platform, to rate people by their consumption behaviour and preference among other factors.

"Someone who plays video games for 10 hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person," Li Yingyun, Sesame Credit's technology director, told Chinese media.

"Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility."

However, according to its website, Sesame Credit maintains that despite using the data to openly profile customers it currently does not share the information with Chinese authorities.

'Wifi sniffers', night vision and big data


PHOTO: Information is gathered from multiple sources including licence plate numbers. (Supplied: Dahua Technologies)
Meanwhile, recent reports have revealed that in some areas China employs what is known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) — a high-tech mass surveillance system that pools information on citizens' bank records, computer details, and legal past.

It reportedly runs in parallel to the social credit system and gathers its information from multiple sources or "sensors".

One source is CCTV cameras, some of which have facial recognition and infrared capabilities giving them "night vision" and are positioned in locations police consider sensitive.

Pedestrians walk down street and past shops on busy street in China.
PHOTO: The proposed national system is designed to scrutinise and engineer better individual behaviour. (ABC News)
Another source is "wifi sniffers", which pool the unique identifying addresses of computers, smartphones and other networked devices.

The IJOP also reportedly gathers information including licence plate numbers and citizen identification card numbers from security check points.

"They basically just do monitoring and surveillance of people and particularly categories of people who the authorities consider as focused personnel," Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the ABC.

"That could be people with mental disabilities or with mental health problems, or people who complained, petitioners, and Uyghurs [minorities] and so on as a national project."

"The IJOP sends a list of people deemed suspicious to the police and they are then detained — the social credit system can result in a small punishment and warrants that discipline people in a number of different ways."

Could China combine these projects to engineer society?


PHOTO: Chinese authorities are using facial recognition to crack down on crime. (Reuters: Thomas Peter)
If the Chinese Government manages to amalgamate the regional pilot projects and the immense amounts of data by 2020, it will be able to exert absolute social and political control and "pre-emptively shape how people behave," Samantha Hoffman, an independent consultant on Chinese state security, said.

"If you are aware that your behaviour will negatively or positively impact your score, and thus your life and the lives of those you associate with, then you will likely adjust your decision-making accordingly," Ms Hoffman said.

But the question remains if the Chinese authorities could really "pull it off", Ms Wang said.

"The Ministry of Public Security runs a number of databases, and then regional authorities also run their databases," Ms Wang said.

"It is difficult to know how these databases are related together and how they're structured and how they are updated.

"At the moment, I would say that they [are] updated to some extent but they're not very well integrated, and the integration is going to be difficult."


PHOTO: Some CCTV cameras have facial recognition or infrared capabilities. (Supplied: Dahua Technologies)
Hu Naihong, a finance professor at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, who is helping to build the national social credit system, seems to agree.

"The top-level design, the institutional framework, and the key documents are all in place, but there are still many problems to be solved," the professor said in a 2017 meeting in Zhejiang.

"The most serious problem being that all kinds of platforms are rigorously collecting [data], while having vague legal and conceptual basis and boundaries."

PHOTO: Zhong Pei's mother Zhong Zhihong (R) thanking the local prosecutor for taking her name off the list. (Supplied)
There have been many cases where the current algorithms wrongly trapped innocent people in the blacklist.

In 2015, Zhong Pei, a then 16-year-old student living in Jiangsu, was blacklisted for being dishonest, after her father killed two people and died in a car accident.

It took Ms Zhong four months to dispute the court's decision and get her name off the list in 2017 to board a train and enrol in her university.

Li Jinglin, a lawyer at Xinqiao law firm in Beijing, said the current pilot schemes of the social credit system had mainly been targeting two groups of people: those who fail to follow court orders or pay debts, and those who pose threats to the Communist Party's rule or general "social stability" — dissidents and petitioners, as well as their families.

An abuse of state power, and breach of laws


Aforementioned blacklisted journalist Mr Liu, whose case has attracted international media attention, appears to fall into both categories. He previously exposed corrupt Chinese officials and was held by police for "spreading rumours".

GIPHY: A GIF of the facial recognition system in China.
While it is expected that governments make reasonable attempts to enforce court orders, experts say it is against local Chinese laws and is an abuse of fundamental human rights to restrict citizens' movements and deny them equal access to education.

"Banning citizens from traveling by flight or high-speed rail for having low credit records is a violation of civil rights," Mr Li told the ABC.

"Especially that the railway and aviation are state-owned industries, and are obligated to grant every citizen equal access to transportation."

Many observers fear human rights could be increasingly violated via the social credit system, and — combined with a growing surveillance system and technologies such as facial recognition being rolled out across the country — the Chinese Government could have the ability to turn the system on its citizens.

"China is characterised by a system of 'rule by law', rather than true rule of law," Elsa B Kania, an expert in Chinese defence innovation and emerging technologies at the Centre for a New American Security, said.

"That law [and extra-legal measures] can be used as a weapon to legitimise the targeting of those whom the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] perceives as a threat.

"In such an environment, such a system could be abused to those same ends."

The question that remains to be answered in coming years, experts say, is where the line between "bettering society" and "controlling society" will be drawn.

Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-31/chinas-social-credit-system-punishes-untrustworthy-citizens/9596204

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