Civil Liberties

China Said to Be Creating "Social Credit" Scores to Rule Citizens' Lives

ACLU alarmed at idea that every bit of public info might feed into these high-tech "credit scores" that will define Chinese citizens' lives.


The American Civil Liberties Union is noting-with-alarm a scary new system of "social rating" in development in China. Here's the nub:

China is launching a comprehensive "credit score" system….leveraging all the tools of the information age—electronic purchasing data, social networks, algorithmic sorting—to construct the ultimate tool of social control. 

  • Everybody is measured by a score between 350 and 950, which is linked to their national identity card. While currently supposedly voluntary, the government has announced that it will be mandatory by 2020.
  • The system is run by two companies, Alibaba and Tencent, which run all the social networks in China and therefore have access to a vast amount of data about people's social ties and activities and what they say.
  • In addition to measuring your ability to pay, as in the United States, the scores serve as a measure of political compliance. Among the things that will hurt a citizen's score are posting political opinions without prior permission, or posting information that the regime does not like, such as about the Tienanmen Square massacre that the government carried out to hold on to power, or the Shanghai stock market collapse.
  • It will hurt your score not only if you do these things, but if any ofyour friends do them. Imagine the social pressure against disobedience or dissent that this will create.
  • Anybody can check anyone else's score online. Among other things, this lets people find out which of their friends may be hurting their scores….
  • Those with higher scores are rewarded with concrete benefits. Those who reach 700, for example, get easy access to a Singapore travel permit, while those who hit 750 get an even more valued visa.
  • Sadly, many Chinese appear to be embracing the score as a measure of social worth, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

At the ACLU we are constantly warning of the dangers of abuses of power, and often the dangers we cite, while well-founded, consist of potential futures, leading critics to say we're being "merely theoretical." With this Chinese system, a whole range of things we've warned about are no longer theoretical.

It's reifying the fears that many Americans have about what the ill-intentioned could do with all the information that the likes of a Facebook have about their users. Technologies of communication can certainly be double-edged swords, as this planned system demonstrates.

While this is not being widely reported, yet, and seems almost too bad to be true, the ACLU's report contains a few news clips that themselves have links to other clips that make the existence of this system seem legit, including this supposedly translated official announcement of the plan from the Chinese government.

Here's the Daily Dot and a Alibaba press release referring to "Sesame Scores" that seem to be what the ACLU is talking about. An Ant Financial Services press release from January seems to be discussing the same system in the brighter light of helping Chinese citizens get easier access to certain forms of credit, housing, jobs, and even online dates.

The more alarming political implications the ACLU lists above seem to largely be sourced from Rick Falkvinge of the Swedish "Pirate Party" whom Reason has written about in the past. At any rate, something new to worry about.