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NEXT: China’s Social Credit System

David Staley David Staley NEXT: China’s Social Credit SystemPhoto still from "Nosedive," an episode of Black Mirror in which people use a social credit system.
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In his 2003 novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow’s near-future fictional world features Whuffle, a digital form of social capital. In Doctorow’s world, reputation is the chief form of currency: through a digital app, anyone can discover anyone else’s reputation score. The higher your reputation, the better the products and services you have access to.

That future appears to have arrived in China.

Today, people in China are using an app called Alipay instead of cash. There’s nothing particularly unusual about this: young people in the U.S. are attracted to Venmo, for instance. A cashless society, long predicted, may well be in our immediate future.

Alipay — a Chinese mobile payment app — is very convenient, used to pay for a wide variety of services. It has been described “as if Amazon had swallowed eBay, Apple News, Groupon, American Express, Citibank, and YouTube.” As you might expect, using Alipay leaves digital traces, and like any app, all of that data is being harvested. But it is how that data are being used that have many observers concerned.

A new feature of Alipay recently appeared, called Zhima Credit, which was described as using data analytics to establish a “personal credit” score. We all have FICO scores, a numerical assessment of our credit-worthiness derived from our credit histories. Zhima Credit takes a FICO score to new levels. Zhima Credit is a “reputation rating” system. Beyond your credit score, Zhima Credit tracks a very wide range of a user’s online activity, and not just economic activity. “China’s ‘social credit system’… (is) the use of big data-collection and analysis to monitor, shape and rate behavior via economic and social processes.”

The Alipay app is more than simply a substitute for cash. Anyone identified through their activities on Alipay to be “seriously untrustworthy” will receive a different (lower) level of service. In effect, Alipay is creating a stratified society divided along moral lines. Alipay’s CEO says that Zhima Credit “will ensure that the bad people in society don’t have a place to go, while good people can move freely and without obstruction.” In this new form of inequality, reputation becomes the new currency.

How are “good” and “bad” being defined? Your score is determined by a number of factors: spending habits — especially those that correlate to supposedly good behavior, like buying diapers — the credit of your friends, where you work, where you went to school, and so on. It is not too far of a stretch to imagine that one day anything you post on Facebook or anything you tweet or retweet could be factored into your social credit score. The result, like a FICO score, is a single number that indicates the quality of your social reputation.

One feature of the social integrity rating involves your association with “bad” people. If it turns out that your credit rating score is lower than mine, then if I associate with you my credit score starts to go down as well. To improve my score, therefore, I need to end my association with you.

As one user explains, your life can quickly spiral downward if you are blacklisted on Zhima Credit. “First your score drops. Then your friends hear you are on the blacklist and, fearful that their scores might be affected, quietly drop you as a contact. The algorithm notices, and your score plummets further.” Your otherwise benign online behavior can very quickly become criminalized in such a system.

Alipay begins with being a cashless system. Does this mean that users will try to work around the more unsavory features of Zhima Credit by using cash (or even engaging in barter)? Does this mean that using cash becomes a kind of underground, grey market kind of activity? Or is using cash a way to rebel against this system?

It seems difficult to believe that a social credit system like this one would find much purchase in the U.S. or the West. Privacy and the status of our data are too much in our public consciousness right now — see the backlash Facebook is currently encountering — for people to be seduced by a Alipay-like system in this country. The European Union has been much more vigilant and aggressive about how companies collect and use data and the purposes to which they are put.

But that said, for a generation that is gleefully replacing cash with mobile payment apps, a Zhima Credit-like system could very well erupt in this country if we are not careful.

David Staley is Director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is president of Columbus Futurists and host of CreativeMornings Columbus.

The next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Thursday, August 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the Panera Bread community room (875 Bethel Rd.) Our topic for the evening will be “Data as Labor.”

The next CreativeMornings Columbus will be Friday, August 17 at 8:30 a.m. at Hopewell. Marshall Shorts will speak on the theme “Community.”

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