How China Is Normalising Pervasive Surveillance
Going ahead into the twenty-first century, a powerful convergence of commercial and political interests may normalise pervasive surveillance.
Credit rating is a big business. Thanks to companies like CRISIL and ICRA, and the research they do into the finances of companies, bond investors get an independent view of a company’s financial status. Then they can take a call on whether they should invest or not. At a personal level, the CIBIL score is a relatively new product in India and its value is used as a benchmark by financial institutions to determine whether an individual qualifies for a personal loan and if so for what amount. In all cases, the financial credit score, whether personal or institutional, is the primary determinant for access to loans or financial credit and by extension, to goods and services that are available on credit. In India, these extensions may not be evident but in the US and other financially mature societies, the financial credit score is used to allow or deny telephone connections or even rental of residential apartments. The utility of the financial credit score is well understood and it is generally accepted as a useful tool to ensure safety and stability in a financial ecosystem.
China has taken this concept and is planning to extend it to the social domain. By defining a metric called social credit and determining its numeric value for each citizen, it seeks to create a new tool that will ensure a safe and stable social and political system. Or will it create a high tech, low life, cyberpunk dystopia? This article explores this idea and speculates on how it may or may not be used in other countries, including India.
The financial credit score for an individual is calculated, or built up, with information about the individual that is available with the participants in the financial ecosystem and which they are willing to share without compromising the privacy of the individual. Generally, assets like income stream, home value, bank balance are private but information on liabilities like loans – secured, as in car and home loans and unsecured, as in personal or credit card – that are sanctioned along with a history of utilisation and repayment are available with credit rating agencies. The key determinant in this case is behaviour. While ability to repay a loan is certainly important, what is, perhaps, more important is the willingness to repay. This behavioural trait is measured and quantified by keeping track of actions that can be used as a proxy for the corresponding behavioural traits. For example, if a person has taken loans in the past, there is a behavioural pattern – of repayment, or lack thereof – that can be used as a proxy. Not having taken a loan means that there is no observable behavioural pattern to go with.
In 2014, the Chinese government, operating through the State Council, defined the architecture of a new national social credit system. Designed as an extension of the well-known financial credit system, it will begin as any normal credit scoring system that will assess the creditworthiness of businesses operating in China but then it will go far beyond recording just financial behaviour. Though it is not very clear how non-financial behaviour will actually be recorded, there are pointers that some very sophisticated tools from the world of data science and artificial intelligence will be used to collect, collate and interpret digital data that may exist with one or more government agencies and private companies.
“Big Data” techniques are already used by search engines like Google, Baidu, social media firms like Twitter, Weibo, and e-commerce sites like Amazon, Alibaba to gather vast amount of data on what people search for, talk about and purchase. In Western societies, concerns about privacy and legislation limit the amount of that can be collected or the way that this can be used by government agencies. In China, where national security and the need to maintain social order overrides any concerns about privacy, this kind of data will be readily – if not compulsorily – available. Hence the Chinese government will have a fairly detailed view, not just into the buying patterns of its citizens, but also into what they are thinking and talking about. This obviously means that any kind of behaviour that threatens national security or social order – a euphemism for anti-government behaviour – will be detected with relative ease.
But even this is not enough. Anyone who has been to China would have noticed the large number of CCTV cameras that are deployed not just in public and private buildings but also on roads. Using facial recognition and vehicle number plate reading technology, it is very much possible to track the actual physical movement of individuals and the vehicles registered in their name across any part of the country. All it needs is to collect the digital imagery from thousands of cameras and run them through a centralised system, neither of which is difficult with the technology that is readily available today.
Some of the data that is gathered and the use to which it is put is sometimes funny, though occasionally useful. For example, time spent on online gaming (and perhaps on pornography, though this is not stated as such) is tracked and if it is excessive then the social credit score gets reduced. People on matrimonial or dating sites are encouraged to display their social credit score, along with their other characteristics, as this is expected to ensure social compatibility of partners. Similarly, hospitals are being encouraged to ask patients for their social credit score and offer preferential services to those whose scores are high.
The financial credit score, like CIBIL, determines access to loans. So a bad financial credit score means that one cannot get loans or the interest charged on loans is high. China’s social credit score mechanism takes this to the next level by placing similar restrictions on access to other services. Some of these restrictions could seem logical, as in denying access to the best schools and colleges to children of parents who have low social credit. What is more troublesome is the restriction on travel implemented by creating a no-fly no-train (or no-travel) list of people who are not allowed to purchase train or airline tickets for themselves. This means that in one shot, people whom the government deem to be troublemakers are now physically restrained from leaving their residential neighbourhood and participate in any troublesome activity. Forget about guns and bombs, the person cannot even travel to the capital and meet with fellow activists there. This is like a house arrest, or in this case, a neighbourhood arrest.
This no-travel scenario is not from a hypothetical cyberpunk novel. The system has become operational from March 2018 and by May 2018 the process of denial of air and train tickets has been implemented. It is reported that nearly 10 million people were not allowed to buy airline or high-speed train tickets. The reason for denial of tickets is not very clear and it seems that at the moment, most of the people on the no-travel list are debtors with bad history of repayment. But as is evident, it would be very easy to extend the same no-travel list to include people with low social credit as well.
One challenge with the current Chinese system is that unlike financial credit, the basis of determining social credit is not clearly known. The definition of good and bad behaviour is still ill-defined and there is no clear explanation about which all entities are contributing data. Nor is there any mechanism to question the validity of a social credit score or appeal against a low score.
Is such pervasive surveillance possible? Certainly yes. We – not just China but every country – have the technology to make it happen. A combination of data science and artificial intelligence along with free and open source tools to use them is readily available to anyone who wants to do so. Is such pervasive surveillance permissible? This is where the issues become murky and questions become difficult to answer. If you subscribe to the Western ideals of liberalism, individualism and social contract articulated by philosophers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, then such surveillance and the subsequent restrictions are unacceptable. But if you were to subscribe to the philosophy of Confucius, who believed that disorder and chaos is the biggest hindrance to peace, prosperity and happiness and that when the average person does not have the ability to make important decisions, then the surveillance and restrictions suddenly make a lot of sense. In China, obviously, they believe more in Confucius than in Rousseau and hence there is little known objection to this new concept of social credit. But then what happens behind the Bamboo Curtain is something that is difficult for us to know.
Where Does India Figure In All This?
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, India is a country of inertia and momentum. Nothing changes easily and if anyone tries to change anything, there is always a tremendous opposition. Plus we have politicians who will oppose anything that is proposed by the government. We have three ways to tag and track, individuals, namely, the voter card issued by the Election Commission of India, the PAN issued by the Income Tax Department and finally Aadhaar from Unique Identification Authority of India. The voter card number is of little use in tracking anything beyond the polling booth because it is neither standardised nor is there a central searchable repository. The PAN is somewhat more useful because its disclosure is now mandatory in all high value monetary transactions and so it is possible to link large movements of money to specific individuals.
Recently, the Income Tax Department has mooted a proposal in which regular taxpayers, that is those with the correct tax related behaviour, would be eligible for special privileges at toll roads, airports and government offices. In a sense, this is like the reported usage of social credit in Chinese hospitals. Aadhaar – as a unique identity – could have been used to track a person’s behaviour across different types of platforms and processes but the Supreme Court has ruled that it can only be used for its original purpose, namely, to track disbursal of government subsidies to specific targets. Hence it appears that such pervasive surveillance may seem to be difficult in India. However, with the rapid advancement of technology that can connect individuals to their actions as recorded in their digital footprint, the possibility of perpetual and pervasive surveillance will never go away – even if we were to restrict or eliminate Aadhaar. In the digital world, you can run – or click – but you can never ever hide.
What China is overtly doing today with their social credit mechanism is something that, in a sense, is already being done covertly by companies and governments in many other countries. Going forward, such surveillance may become as common and as acceptable as body searches at airports and car searches at hotels that we have agreed to submit to in the interests of personal safety. A powerful convergence of commercial and political interests will ensure that privacy will eventually become a myth and any attempt to push back against the use of surveillance technology and the consequent loss of privacy will be as futile as trying to hold back the tide on the seashore. The best that we can hope for is that this loss of privacy does not lead to an automatic degradation in the quality of personal and social life.
This kind of a dystopian future is frequently envisaged in cyberpunk scenarios. The NeonDystopia website describes, “Cyberpunk [as] both a culture and a genre.
Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that features advanced science and technology in an urban, dystopian future. On one side you have powerful mega corporations and private security forces, and on the other you have the dark and gritty underworld of illegal trade, gangs, drugs and vice. In between all of this is politics, corruption, and social upheaval.”
Human society today is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Technology, economics and politics have created a powerful vortex that makes it very difficult to steer a course away from this cyberpunk dystopia without abandoning technology and regressing into primitive medievalism. While scientists, both physical and social, grapple with these issues, the anodyne perhaps could lie, not in Rousseau or Confucius, but in the non-dual advaita of Sankara that sees a primordial unity across all sentience. Perhaps, this utopian scenario would blur the borders between individual identities and lead to the irrelevance of the idea of privacy.
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