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China’s Big Credit Score Idea: Should You Be Scared?

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Imagine a “credit score” that didn’t measure the likelihood that you will pay bills, but instead the likelihood that you’ll be a troublemaker. To your town, or your company or your government.

Your “citizen score” would drop if you posted anything negative on social media — or if any of your friends posted anything negative. Your purchase habits would also be tracked and scrutinized. Buying video games would hurt your score, for example.

As with credit scores, any drop in “citizen scores” would have real consequences. Citizens with lower scores would have a harder time getting paperwork from the government, such as travel visas.

And the scores are public. Anyone can see your numeric reputation. Citizens wouldn’t be able to avoid comparing themselves to one another, and the social consequences of that would be obvious. Who wants to date or hire someone who can’t be trusted to leave the country?

This Orwellian vision is at the moment, fortunately, just a product of an active imagination — but a very informed one. Jay Stanley is a policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and recently wrote a piece speculating on the consequences of efforts by the Chinese government to launch a credit scoring system that utilizes many of the data sources (including social media accounts) referenced above.

‘Authoritarianism, Gamified’

“The more I learn about it, the more nightmarish it seems,” he wrote. “China appears to be leveraging all the tools of the information age — electronic purchasing data, social networks, algorithmic sorting — to construct the ultimate tool of social control. It is, as one commentator put it, ‘authoritarianism, gamified.’ “

Violent oppression is passé, he wrote, and it is being replaced by far more sinister and sneaky ways of controlling a population.

“(It is) much subtler and more effective to pressure people, to turn the exercise of power from a hammer, striking the body politic from without, into a drug, which permeates social life from within and shapes it in the desired directions,” he wrote. “In today’s world, all the tools are in place to allow a government to do just that in stunningly subtle yet powerful ways, and the Chinese government appears to be wasting no time in exploiting that potential to the fullest.”

Fortunately, other observers say Stanley’s dire description of China’s credit score adventures are at the very least premature, and perhaps exaggerated. TechinAsia.com reports that Stanley has conflated features of credit scores recently begun by private corporations and a government credit score program that doesn’t become mandatory for citizens until 2020.

On the other hand, there’s no reason such a system might not eventually emerge — a “credit” scoring system that rewards sincerity with social perks — and no reason the Chinese government wouldn’t do it, wrote Charlie Custer.

“It seems likely that some of the ACLU’s fears might eventually come true,” Custer said. “If the government wants its credit system to enforce social morality, then collecting data on everything from political activities to purchase histories might well be on the table. And there’s little in the Chinese government’s history to suggest it would be unwilling to construct such a credit system and make it mandatory.”

Could the U.S. Digitize Morality?

But that’s China. Stanley’s real point was this: Could something similar happen in the U.S.? While it’s hard to imagine an electorate that won’t tolerate gun owner registration tolerating the creation of something like a “citizen score” here, one shouldn’t dismiss the Orwellian notions out of hand. In the U.S., consumer advocates are more worried of the offender being a dot-com than a dot-gov.

Just last month, a firm working on an app got a round of pre-launch press by revealing that its forthcoming software would be something like a “Yelp for People.” Everyone — members or not — would be allowed to rate everyone else, essentially creating a massive gossip database. After backlash, the firm publicly backed off its plans a bit.

But elements of this type of app already exist in online dating sites and social networks, where it’s routine to besmirch people with fits of anger that last forever in Google. And that’s just the beginning. Turning billions of public social media posts into some kind of money-making database is an entrepreneurial obsession right now. Here’s just one example: An army of newfangled, Big-Data-driven lenders plan to decide on borrower risk based on hundreds of factors that currently aren’t in credit reports – such as who you follow on Twitter or what kind of digital trails you leave while surfing the Web. It’s a great idea to figure out how to lend to consumers who don’t have a credit history; it’s worrisome what kind of credit score alternatives might arise from their research.

Meanwhile, elements of this data-driven punishment and reward system are already deeply embedded into the insurance world. Some life insurance companies are offering discounts to consumers who wear exercise wrist bands; some health insurance providers have similar programs.

That’s just the beginning in the insurance world. Stats show overweight people tend to have overweight friends, and overweight parents are more likely to have overweight kids. It’s not much of a stretch to think some insurance companies will punish consumers because of who their friends and family are. Heck, it’s not a stretch to think consumers could be punished because of the groceries they buy. Auto insurance companies today consider details like “hard braking” or frequency of late-night driving when setting insurance rates. When the Internet of Things fills your home with tattle-tale technology, your insurance company can easily learn when you get home at night and even how much you sleep. Will that end up becoming part of a viability-related score?

It’s not just insurance. It’s hard to imagine years-old tweets or Facebook posts costing you the right to vote or travel, but they already cost people jobs. We know that most employers (and colleges) review social media posts when considering applicants. Today, they are just looking for signs you might embarrass the institution. But soon, some might simply be looking for a mathematical pattern. It was a full three years ago that journalists couldn’t resist writing about the work of three university professors who used applicants’ Facebook posts to accurately predict future job success — creating what I called at the time a “Facebook score.”

What Are They Doing With Your Data?

Meanwhile, data brokers who are not subject to the regulation that controls credit reporting agencies have already placed most of us into buckets like “Urban Scrambler” or “Everlasting Rural” or “Married Sophisticate” or “Financially Challenged.” Data giant Acxiom claims to know 3,000 things about nearly every American. And Acxiom has dozens of competitors. What new categories might they create, and how might they limit our futures? If you aren’t already holding back when you post on social media for fear of some unknown possible future consequence, you aren’t paying attention.

Much like the ACLU column that started this discussion, this speculation is at least premature. Some of these data mining nightmares may never come to pass. For the most part, today’s laws heavily restrict data mining when it’s just to make lending, insurance, or employment decisions, while nearly anything goes when it’s used for marketing purposes. Those lines aren’t so clear any longer, but they at least form a decent starting point. We are, as a society, only beginning to discuss what’s acceptable data mining on our citizens and what’s not. That’s the point. The time to have the discussion is now, not when the Pandora’s Server Box has been flung open to every corporation for every purpose it can imagine — leaving us with the hazy sense that we aren’t as free as we used to be. As we consider these weighty things, it’s wise to recall one of Orwell’s most powerful predictions: Oppression doesn’t have to come at the end of a gun; it can come from the other side of a screen.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

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