China's Social Credit System

Episode 197 of the Cyberlaw Podcast


While the US was transfixed by posturing over the Trump presidency, China has been building the future. Chances are you'll find one part of that future – social credit scoring – both appalling in principle and irresistible in practice. That at least is the lesson I draw from our interview of Mara Hvistendahl, National Fellow at New America and author of the definitive article on the allure, defects and mechanics of China's emerging social credit system.

In the news roundup, Nick Weaver dives deep on the Spectre and Meltdown security vulnerabilities while I try to draw policy and litigation implications from the debacle. TL;DR? This is bad, but the class actions will settle for pennies. Oh, and xkcd has all you need to know.

I note that US Customs and Border Protection under Trump has imposed new limitations on border searches of electronic devices. So naturally the press is all "Trump has stepped up border searches aggressively." No good deed unpunished, as they say.

Maury Shenk explains President Macron's latest plans to regulate cyberspace in the name of fighting Russian electoral interference and fake news. The Germans, meanwhile, have begun implementing their plan to fight hate speech on the internet. Predictably, it looks as though hate speech is winning.

In the litigation outrage of the month, a company called Keeper (apparently a competitor of LastPass and other password managers) got caught distributing software with a security flaw. So they did what any security-conscious company would – they sued the website that publicized the flaw for libel. It's a crappy suit, and we should all hope they end up assessed with costs and fees. But the real question is this: Google found and disclosed the flaw, while Microsoft distributed Keeper to its users. When will they file as amici to say that no company with a mature security model files STFU libel suits against people who point out legitimate security problems? TL;DR? Keeper: Loser.

Finally, Hal Martin pleads guilty to one of twenty-plus counts and takes a ten-year sentence. So far, so ordinary in the world of plea bargaining. But as Nick points out, this wasn't a bargain. Martin can still be tried and sentenced on all the other counts. And it effectively stipulates the maximum sentence for the one count he's pleading guilty to. There must be a strategy here, but we can't say for sure what it is.

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  1. China has been building the future. Chances are you’ll find one part of that future ? social credit scoring ? both appalling in principle and irresistible in practice

    Its funny how the current mafia in China or disturbing orwellian trends occupy very little mindshare. The social justice jihad has increasingly dominated everything over the past few decades. Even leaving politics aside If you ask the average person what are worst long term evils they’d likely pick domestic pariahs like sex offenders or GHF or maybe some islamic terrorist group before the Chinese administration or stuff like social credit.

    1. The social credit system is status-seeking, and a caste system, rolled into one. The only link to “social justice” is tangential, at best.

    2. “Its funny how the current mafia in China or disturbing orwellian trends occupy very little mindshare.”

      Since there’s nothing especially rational about the way humans prioritize risk, I’m not sure it matters how Americans (average or otherwise) order social credit systems versus Gmail scanning every email you send.

      As it turns out, however, as recently as 2015 Americans were very concerned about “big brother” issues, that shifted to corrupt government officials in 2016. 10% reported being very afraid of zombies.

  2. Re the border, did the author actually read the Verge article? It does have the latest naked quote but only at the end, and is far from the point of the piece.

    1. Latest naked should read “linked”

      1. What the heck autocorrect pulled that one off?

  3. This is just a gamified form of the liberal political correctness we see today. Oh, and the Chicoms also don’t punish you for not playing as viciously as the American commies.

    1. I’m game. Let’s hear your story of victimization at the hands of American commies. The victimization that was so bad you thought “I wish I was in China. They know how to treat a guy!”

        1. I’m not one to use the term privilege, but to say the above private action is worse than human rights in China…

          Get some perspective.

        2. Yeah, no. Start over.

    2. Quit whimpering.

  4. Wasn’t there a Black Mirror episode on this?

    1. The Black Mirror episode was “Nosedive”, really good.

  5. A couple risks in the Chinese credit system that immediately come to mind are

    1) A large degree of path-dependence. That is, a citizen’s initial low score makes it harder to increase the score going forward. Premature “imprinting” of a citizen as a high or low scorer may diminish the citizen’s belief in their chances to improve.

    2) The system may prevent a citizen from “snapping-back” after a major credit loss, even exposing citizens to social ruin.

    A large degree of caution would need to be taken to manage the risks, both known and unknown. However, such a scoring system would have great potential for personal development of citizens.

    There is a very clear conflict of interest between institutions leveraging the scores for decision making, and the human beings on the other side, who are often in need of patience, grace, and compassion to be their best selves…. Oprah 2020!

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