Opinion

Technology stamps out bad behaviour in China

Technology stamps out bad behaviour in China
  • Whereas critics see the social credit score as a tool to break conventional rules of privacy, most Chinese embrace it.

  • They perceive it as an effective tool to protect good people from fraudsters.

  • But for those who feel unfairly treated by the system, the government leaves citizens with little room for recourse.

  • For them, the brute force of data and artificial intelligence is squeezing the throats of citizens’ privacy.

From childhood to adulthood, mothers extol the virtues of good manners to their children. They beseech us not to litter the streets, or engage in futile fights, or cheat. Our mothers — our first teachers — entreat us to help the needy and to pay our debts.

Beset by challenges of taming the wayward, China has turned to technology to get the Chinese to live by a mother’s manners playbook.

GOOD DEEDS

Using the alchemy of technology and the brute force of big data, China has created a system to whip its people to the straight and narrow, and be rewarded for it.

Beginning 2014, the Chinese government started creating a social credit system aimed at ensuring a society devoid of swindlers and pesky people. Marked for full-scale implementation from next year, the system awards each point based on the health of one’s finances, social media activities, health records, online purchases, tax payments and people one associates with.

Individuals are tracked by 200 million laser-sharp, intelligent surveillance cameras strategically mounted on city buildings along the streets.

After recording each individual’s facial features, the cameras match the image with information on the country’s massive information reservoirs, thereby telling a person’s details — such as name, age and location. To build a complete person’s profile, the camera-captured image is matched with a person’s social media information and other information pooled from rivers of data.

Those on the government’s watch-list due to their past behaviour or their proclivity to misbehave, stay under closer focus. The information is reported to National Public Credit Information Centre.

Every citizen starts off with a credit score of 1,000. Good deeds earn points. The points are treated like vouchers which can be redeemed for discounted utility bills, free medical check-ups and faster processing of applications to travel abroad.

DIGITAL DRAGNETS

People can lose points by breaking traffic rules, evading taxes, misbehaving in public or neglect of their elderly parents.

A low score can be costly. Last year, for example, owing to their dismal scores, 17.5 million Chinese were reportedly barred from using transport, including 5.5 million stopped from boarding a train. More than 100 people couldn’t leave the country because they had cheated the taxman.

Whereas critics see the social credit score as a tool to break conventional rules of privacy, most Chinese embrace it. They perceive it as an effective tool to protect good people from fraudsters.

But for those who feel unfairly treated by the system, the government leaves citizens with little room for recourse. For them, the brute force of data and artificial intelligence is squeezing the throats of citizens’ privacy.

With digital dragnets now turbo-charged by troves of data, and crime getting ever so sophisticated, it may not be long before other countries borrow a leaf from China. By automating a mother’s behaviour playbook, China has proved that a mother’s advice is infallible.

Mr Wambugu is an informatician. Email: @samwambugu2