Social scoring in china: in the realm of monitored steps

Some people jaywalk, others watch porn on the Internet. China’s authorities monitor their citizens – the good ones get bonuses.

Everything is nicely secured on Tiananmen Square in Beijing Photo: reuters

Who dares to jump the queue of people waiting patiently at the counter? Who goes through a red light or just throws his garbage on the sidewalk?

Commit any of these normally negligible sins on Beijing’s streets or anywhere else in China, and you’ll soon realize: There is no unobserved moment. To be sure, the offender will not be jailed for these offenses. But he will suffer the consequences in other ways; for example, when it comes to the next promotion, or a credit application. Then those who have always behaved well in the eyes of the Chinese government will have an advantage.

What the leadership is currently planning threatens to become the largest public education program mankind has ever experienced. There is talk of a "social credit system," a kind of "Schufa" for virtually all aspects of social life. It is to be introduced as early as 2020. Those who behave well will be rewarded, and those who behave badly will be punished. This is made possible above all by the rapid advances in surveillance technology, in which China now leads the field. The technology is supposed to be able to immediately identify every individual, even from an unmanageable mass. A digital dictatorship.

The system is capable of learning

A visit to the start-up company Megvii in northwest Beijing, China’s Silicon Valley, gives a first impression of what modern technology is capable of. The camera software in the projection room recognizes: a man. At first, it is still a little undecided about the age. The figure on the screen fluctuates between , but then settles at 38. Bull’s eye.

The software also measures the face, creates a movement profile and notes special features such as moles, the shape of the auricles and the color of the eyes. If the camera captures the person again later, the software immediately spits out all the data – this time everything is correct. The system is adaptive. "When you stand in front of one of our cameras, we immediately know who you are," says Ai Jiandan from Megvii’s public relations department. "Every face has its own special characteristics."

What has been in a highly controversial test phase in Berlin at Sudkreuz station since last summer is everyday practice in Beijing. In subway stations, shopping malls, on busy streets – hundreds of these intelligent cameras hang from pillars or street lamps in the Chinese capital and record everything that walks or drives past them. The camera sends the recorded data to data centers, which analyze it and create detailed profiles virtually in real time. They are then stored and can be accessed by authorities or private security companies at any time.

What has been in a highly controversial test phase at the Sudkreuz train station in Berlin since last summer is everyday life in Beijing

Megvii, a company that now has 400 employees, counts private security firms, operators of shopping centers and luxury residential complexes among its customers. But its biggest and most important customer is the Chinese government. The Chinese government is currently upgrading its security technology on a massive scale. Anyone who has ever attracted negative attention can be stopped immediately with the Megvii technology when entering a subway station, Ai explains. But more than that, it’s about education.

The state assigns grades

Citizen scoring" is already being tried out in around a dozen trial regions spread across the country. There, the state gives its citizens grades. Those who order healthy baby food over the Internet, for example, receive plus points. On the other hand, anyone who watches porn or spends too much time playing computer games will have to reckon with deductions.

The plan is for users with at least 1,300 points to receive the highest rating, AAA. If they can maintain this score for some time, they will receive discounted loans or better health insurance. A high score for parents could also have a positive effect on the allocation of university places. Anyone who falls below a score of 600, on the other hand, will end up in the worst category, D. Those affected must then even fear losing their jobs.

The points are to be awarded by government agencies, which – according to the plan – will have access to information such as users’ surfing behavior from private companies. A smartphone app will enable everyone to check their own score. In addition, however, banks and employers, landlords, shopping platforms, tour operators and airlines are to be given access to the score, in addition to the authorities. Now that facial recognition technology has proven itself, citizens’ behavior in traffic, train stations, airports and shopping malls is also to be included in the rating. The state has long had facial databases for comparison, because every Chinese citizen has an ID card with a biometric photo.

"China is in the throes of artificial intelligence," notes Berlin-based consulting agency Burger Sino Consulting. Since the Chinese leadership unveiled its "artificial intelligence development plan," this technology has been booming in the People’s Republic, the experts write. "China is already a major driver of innovation in this area, and the biggest competitor to the U.S. in the process." Europe and Germany, on the other hand, have "become insignificant in comparison."

Reward for organic vegetables

The consumer industry is also excited by the new technological possibilities. Alibaba, the Chinese Amazon, has also been operating a comprehensive rating system for some time with its Sesame Credit service. "Anyone who sits in front of a computer for ten hours a day playing video games is unlikely to be very agile," says Li Yingyun, an employee at Sesame Credit. Those who frequently order organic vegetables online, on the other hand, are demonstrating responsibility and health awareness. The reward is discounted air travel and other benefits.

So far, no one is obliged to participate in Sesame Credit. However, the company says it is already making the data available to authorities and banks. Alibaba has collected data from nearly 800 million customers. Tencent, operator of the successful Chinese short message service Wechat and the number two Chinese tech company, is working on a similar system. Wechat, for instance, has an integrated payment option. Every money transfer is recorded there – and stored.

Alibaba wants to go one step further. In the future, anyone who enters a store that uses Alibaba technology will immediately be recorded by the cameras. The software remembers which items of clothing the customer is standing in front of or what she is trying on. All of this then flows into the user profile. Even more products can then be offered online that are specifically geared to the person’s preferences. When Alibaba marketing boss Chris Tung presented these plans in Shanghai in mid-November, a journalist wanted to know what Alibaba thinks about privacy. The Alibaba top executive already didn’t understand the question.

Bonus points for line loyalty

Will facial recognition technology, combined with citizen rating, be used to check line loyalty in the future? It is possible, fears Beijing network activist Wang Bo, who does not want to be called by his real name. He reports from the experimental city of Rongcheng in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong. Those who regularly look at the website of the party-affiliated People’s Newspaper there receive bonus points. It shouldn’t be long before someone writes a small program that opens the newspaper website for them every day and simulates the inquisitive citizen.

On the other hand, anyone who dares to constantly rant about the country’s ills in the social media will have points deducted, says Wang. He speaks of the "communist model citizen" that the Chinese leadership wants to create in this way. What the development is leading to is obvious to him: "Total control."

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