Social Credit System (SCS): Big Data Bliss or A Dystopian Rating Programme?

Group 4

Black mirror’s social scoring episode ‘Nosedive’ is becoming a reality in China. Dubbed as the pioneer of digital social-domination in history, China’s SCS will be implemented nationwide by 2020. SCS is a reputation system produced by the government that aims to assess, manage and rate the social, moral, financial and political behaviour of their citizens [1]. Simultaneously, recognizing the trustworthiness of people within the society.

Citizens are tracked in 2 ways [2]:

  1. Mass video surveillance programme.
  2. Interconnected social apps (i.e. WeChat, TaoBao, AliPay) with bank details attached.

Big Data Bliss

“If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in” – Deng Xiaoping. This quote was the ideology behind the Great Firewall of China (GFW); one of the many social control systems done in China [3]. In the context of SCS, the ‘flies’ or drawback here refers to the expense of one’s privacy.

Although the idea of constant monitoring seems intrusive, it is not unprecedented in China. During the Song Dynasty, local spies were placed in every neighbourhood to report wayward behaviour to the state leaders [4][5]. For centuries, China is governed by virtue instead of law. According to Hongzhi, ”governing oneself by virtue can guide one to become noble” [6], hence it is important to enact laws that will guide people’s morals in China for a better society.

Today, local spies are replaced with impartial technologies. Whether we realise it or not, most of our day-to-day activities are being recorded, be it through CCTV when we stroll down the streets or through countless apps as we scroll mindlessly [7]. Utilising the enormous range of data and quantify them into a measurable value of trustworthiness, SCS promotes itself as a ‘behavioral guideline’ for China’s citizens by rewarding the trustworthy (i.e high scorers) and discipline the untrustworthy.

That being said,  implementing SCS is simply giving digital technology a role in existing systems in China and tying them all together. The government’s intention of shaping a virtuous society by retrieving various information to form a comprehensive understanding of one’s habit is supported by Kant’s theory [8].

In a country where one’s credibility is in constant debate, having a transparent scoring system will reinforce the trust among corporates, government and society. The building of positive bonds align with the care ethics approach. This will encourage public participation in future government policy-making, bring common mistrust issues to light and push companies to be more reputable. This includes businesses refusing to pay wages, tax avoidance, scams, food safety, and etc [9]. Decisions made in order to preserve the virtue of honesty – which is decided to be the foundation of good public relation, is classified as morally just from the standpoint of virtue ethics [10].

The reward and punish system nurtures the glory of trust keeping as well as the pains of trust breaking. This not only motivates citizens to be mindful of their actions, but also educate them on being responsible of the consequences. Living in a community that place emphasis on social status [11], the public shaming aspect of SCS will admittedly encourage both moral and law abiding citizens.

Even though controlling the daily routines of billions seem barbaric, this is completely ethical under the framework of stoicism, where self-control and acceptance of any given situation is upheld [12]. In addition, Alexandra Ma explains how initially, righteous acts were carried out due to fear of losing points but later transformed to one’s involuntary habit [13].

A country where criminals and lawbreakers are easily weeded out will produce a safer environment for everyone. Philosophist, Jeremy Bentham’s theory on utilitarianism is in agreement to the aim of SCS, where any moral action considered, should provide happiness to majority of the stakeholders, which in this case being; billions of citizens [14].

A Dystopian Nightmare

“Relying on the government to protect your privacy is like asking a peeping tom to install your window blinds.” – John Perry Barlow. SCS gives the government access to one’s privacy. Social apps in China such as AliPay and WeChat are interconnected [15], and contain personal bank details, thereby easing payment almost anywhere, anytime.

Owning a mobile phone is necessary in this cashless society, but these apps collect data to monitor online behaviour everyday. Currently, participation is voluntary, but it will become compulsory by 2020 [13], which strips both a person’s freedom and privacy. The government’s duty is to prioritize its citizens. It is ethically wrong to discard these fundamental human rights simply because the government believes it would yield better consequences.

Deontology emphasises the value of each human being and their actions, and rejects that the greater good of SCS can justify a smaller harm, hence the SCS should not be enforced.

In 2015, Charney Research [16] found that 35% of companies in China pay bribes to operate. If detected, penalties can be enforced and their reputation will be tarnished. Conversely, the other 65% will be affected due to unfair competition. Utilitarianism believes that the greatest good comes from creating happiness for the greatest number of people. However, more parties will be negatively impacted in this situation, thereby increasing corruption.

The fact that individuals are not in full control over their own score, is unethical. [17] Fundamentally, SCS judges an individual based on their score, which follows consequentialism. If your family or friends post negative comments online, you will be penalized even though you were not involved. A lower credit score suggests that it is your fault even if it was the fault of your social circle. Ultimately, the SCS allows the government to control who you interact with and can predict your actions, which could remove every citizen’s freedom of thought, expression and speech [18].

The SCS has already been misused to silent dissents and ensure the government’s absolute dominance. [2] Liu Hu was charged with a speech crime and blacklisted as “dishonest” after uncovering corruption at top levels of the Party. His actions have affected his family and destroyed his career. Hu should be awarded points based on his actions according to deontology. [19] Having SCS is giving power to an isolated party, with full control over the people in the country, without a moderating system.

Although the system is meant to mitigate corruption, the government has clearly exploited the system for their own benefit, which is against Kant’s theory in making sensible decisions [8], by destroying and segregating lives of those speaking out against the government’s actions.

Initial Decision

After considering both parties, we concluded that SCS should be implemented; supporting the quote: “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to hide”.

26 thoughts on “Social Credit System (SCS): Big Data Bliss or A Dystopian Rating Programme?

  1. Although this article discuses all the pros and cons for the SCS, it would be useful to offer some recommendations on how the government could make the system more ethical and fair in order to benefit all the parties involved. This could help minimise the damages associated with the unethical credit system while still effectively enabling citizens and businesses to benefit from the credit system.

    1. Thank you for your point, I do agree with you, however, on the government’s point of view, it does not seem unethical. Implementing SCS is meant to improve morale and help citizens find better versions of themselves. This will help companies and citizens in general. Also, the rewards SCS provides for high scores gives better opportunities to people. I think people just tend to view things from a bad perspective while it would still benefit them.

      1. It is evident from your article that the benefits do outweigh the consequences as it reduces the correpution and increases the stability in the society. However it is also neccessary for the government to address the unethical aspect of the SCS as it does cause an adverse effect on people by violating their human rights.

  2. This article provides a very good explanation on what SCS is and how it is used. Although it is legal and the supervision is a norm in the Chinesse society, the government should make an effort to make it more fair to people. It is still unethical and should not be implemented. If calling out corrupted leaders a crime why bother creating this system on the first place?

    1. I agree with this. The government should find ways to balance out the benefits and drawbacks of the credit system. If the system is in itself corrupt, it seizes to function to benefit the society in which it operates in.

      1. SCS will also make the government more transparent and reduce corruption within society. SCS will not overlook political affairs and judge everyone party equally, thus; middle-class, high-class, companies and the government.

    2. Social credit system is meant to call out the corrupted leaders for you! Just like how a person who violates the rules, the corrupted leaders will pay a price for corruption.

        1. I agree that the government have used their power in this situation and if SCS was a system not run by the government, Liu Hu would have gotten points for uncovering the truth. The problem is the Government, not SCS. SCS is expected to correct the government too and make it better. If the system is implemented as meant to.

      1. Yes but how does a corrupt leader who accepts bribes or businesses who evade taxes get punish in the same system as a person who posted a negative comment on social media. They needs to be fair and just punishment for each offence. The SCS should be a way for people to put there actions into perspective but should have means to punish them in relation to the degree of their offenses.

        1. I very much agree to this. If the government controls the system they should atleast set the punishments baised on the weights of the crimes conducted. No priorites should be given!

          1. Yes the governemnet should punish the corporations more to set an example and lower the punishment for tge minor offenses

      2. The system should be designed to ensure that the citizens follow the law and feel an obligation to contribute to the society. However if the system also points out the leaders who created the system are breaking the law, doesnt that undermine the entire system and they reason why it was implemented?

      3. Also dont you think that the strict laws and surviellence will actually make the citizens want to rebel even more?
        The SCS doesnt casue any solution to why people commit crime. They should focus on improving the economy and generating more job opportunities for people so they dont have to break the law.

        1. SCS will close the income gap and help low-class citizens get promoted as equally as other citizens. If SCS favours the needy, why would people want to rebel? As a developing country, China still has a huge income gap and the rich tend to control over, which leaves the middle class unemployed or unpromoted. SCS will help in fast track promotion and hopefully solve all the obstacles raised on the economy.

  3. Do correct me if I am wrong but, wouldn’t the offenders of the law need to get caught first in order to then update the SCS system? If that’s the case, I don’t think that the people who do felonies like bribery and tax evasion would bat an eye to the new system. If they aren’t caught now, some scoring system surely wouldn’t stop them from carrying on their illegal practices.

  4. I believe SCS is a good thing to behave society as a whole. Especially China with their governing philosophy. How about the governing body that monitor their citizen personal live. How we can ensure they will continuously being just? Does the same consequences applied to them if they committing wrong or they could easily bribe their way out since they are the one monitoring the system. Are we ready to forgone the freedom of speech and though, just because to being a perfect good guy, who don’t making any mistake at all or cannot being criticized. Or worse becoming a society without any expression and emotion just like in the movie “The Giver”.
    It’s like becoming an ant, follow what the queen told to do. Nothing more, nothing less.
    Let’s think about it.

  5. Basically this is a classic case of technology and ethics in society, which goes hand-in-hand. Need to look at it from 2 different angles. One, as a practitioner in the big data analytics arena, this is one such great use-case. collecting and gathering all sort of information form various mediums as mentioned in the article, and come up with some kind of prediction and analysis on the person or society as a whole.

    On the other hand, whether these activities are ethically correct or justified from the point of the society. For this one, it boils down to what the authority (chinese govt in this case) intended to do with it. It is rightfully justified in the article of their intentions, i.e to reduce corruptions, etc etc etc.

    However, with the SCS or not, we are actually being scored from we were born. In school thru uni, we have grade systems. We also have driving merits if i’m not mistaken and credit scoring history and etc. So for the society to be ‘afraid’ of the scoring system is to me a bit unnecessary. Furthermore, we are the one that give out our information willingly to social media like facebook, instagram, etc etc.

    Btw, back to local front. Until recently i was involved in the project, to architect the Risk Assessment Module. As part of it, everybody that is going thru our border will be given a score based on certain parameters. and yes, the plan is to check the social media too.

    As a conclusion, to me the SCS is a great use-case for Big Data. Ethically, it boils to the intentions of the SCS.

  6. This article does a good job in briefly explaining what SCS is, as well as the pros and cons.

    I think SCS is a good way to keep track of the population, especially one as huge as China’s.It could encourage people to think before they act and perhaps do more good as they are constantly being monitored. However, it is at the expense of one’s freedom and privacy, which I believe are important in a functional society. Control the citizens too much, and you’ll probably end up with a mindless herd of humans or a resistance movement. I also think that the government will always try to protect their best interest (be it legal or illegal) so it’s not a surprise to find the government themselves exploiting the system (e.g. Hu’s case).

  7. It looks like SCS have an essence of communism where social status and money does not matter. It is good indeed to disregard social status, ethnicity, etc.. when it comes to justice, as it gives credit to the person’s real merit. Presumably, SCS seems to be the ideal way to discipline people, yet this is not always the case if the government itself or the regulators of the system are corrupt. This can be paralleled with how clean or corrupt the police and justice systems are. Additionally, when it comes to ethics, it is definitely a privacy invasive way of crediting people’s doings. As previously commented it would be good to maximise the positive things about SCS and minimise the bad sides of it, as we don’t want to become an emotionless society. As well as be able to have a freedom of speech and opinion

  8. I believe that SCS is truely a upcoming phenomena, like it or not, our society will rely on AI to rank and judge people. SCS makes a country’s citizens take responsibility to their actions,online or offline.

  9. This is a very good article, an excellent topic to discuss. All four social theories are relevant here and, in the For section, were discussed.
    Ultimately, the issues, for me are:
    1. Who watches the watchman? Are those who set up and monitor the system held to the same standards?
    2. Gamesmanship – will individuals develop ways to exploit the system, either to boost their own score, or, as seems more likely, to discredit another? Could someone, for example, use this system to hurt an ex-partner?

  10. First of all, this article introduced me to Black Mirror! secondly, brilliant article. well explained to someone with little to no technical knowledge.

    From the first paragraph, I was very sure that I would be against this system but to my surprise, I like how you made me change my mind from against to supporting it and back to against and ends with a provocative sentence in the conclusion. I am completely on the fence now.

    I read more regarding this issue out of curiosity to see what other people think about it. I found out about the things you can do that will result in a deduction in point such as playing too much video games. That made me think that the system is too objective. how much is too much? what if playing video game is your living. lets say you’re a youtuber. do you get points because you are doing work or lose points because the system generally says so.

    That is all for now, thank you.

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