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Supercomputing Surveillance: How China plans to track and rate everything its citizens do

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WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — Imagine living in a society where every action you make in your day-to-day life is monitored, quantified and scored by the government using a massive surveillance network.

Now, imagine that score is used to determine everything from your career choices to whether or not you're allowed to travel outside the country. This kind of dystopian fantasy is common in science fiction, but in China, the Chinese Communist Party is working to make it a reality.

"It's going to rate Chinese citizens on all kinds of things," said Zack Cooper, a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute who studies surveillance in China. "Everything from whether they post critical comments of the government on chat rooms to whether they are jaywalking on the street."

Chinese Communist Party officials came up with this Social Credit System in 2014. It's the party's way of determining who is a model citizen, and who is not. According the to party's outline, the idea is to instill that "keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful."

The outline notes that the system would reward those engaging in what the party considers good behavior, while punishing those who do not.

"Social credit score, it seems so benign, right? It's just like having a banking credit score, but in reality it's not. It's very different. It's much more coercive in all aspects of a person's life."
Zack Cooper, American Enterprise Institute

Forget to pick up after your dog? Perhaps you didn't put it on a leash when you took it out? That kind of behavior could get your dog taken away in Jinan, a city in China where a pilot program of the system is already in place.

Other pilot programs are much more robust, as author Rachel Botsman noted in a piece for Wired in 2017.

Sesame Credit is one of the better-known examples, according to Bostman. Run by Ant Financial Services Group, an affiliate of Chinese online retailer Alibaba, Sesame Credit scores individuals on a scale from 350 to 950 points using a mysterious algorithm. Because Ant has access to so much user data, it can use everything from bill payments to social media posts to determine a score.

What's remarkable is that millions of users have signed up. Why? The reasons could be many, but having a good Sesame Credit score comes with rewards. Better loans, VIP service while traveling and smoother check-in while traveling are dolled out to those who meet the mark.

Furthermore, a good Sesame Credit score has become something of a fashion statement, according to Botsman. Thousands have bragged about their scores on Twitter. It even impacts a user's status on Baihe, a Chinese dating app.

"These authoritarian states are looking to keep greater control over their people. And this is one way to do it."
Zack Cooper, American Enterprise Institute

"Social credit score, it seems so benign, right?" said Cooper. "It's just like having a banking credit score, but in reality it's not. It's very different. It's much more coercive in all aspects of a person's life."

Indeed, the negative aspects of the system have already had profound effects. Millions have been banned from flying domestically due to low scores. One Chinese student found himself rejected from a university due to his father's score. Others have found luxuries like first-class tickets and hotel rooms unavailable.

China aims to have the system fully implemented by 2020. It will no doubt be a massive undertaking to keep track of China's more than 1.3 billion people, but the country already has a head start thanks to its massive surveillance system. In addition to 200 million cameras, China has implemented facial recognition technology in an effort to recognize criminals on the street. Those who are suspected of doing wrong have their faces plastered on billboards for the public to see.

Processing all of the data for the system will also be a monumental undertaking, but China's booming tech sector may have the solution. China is already ahead of the United States when it comes to supercomputers, in fact, it is home to the fastest in the world. The sheer processing power of these machines makes the fastest retail processors look like a 1980s Mac. Add in China's relentless pursuit of artificial intelligence, and it is conceivable that the Social Credit System could be a plausible endeavor.

But if you think such a system will be limited to China, think again. Similar systems could find their ways into the hands of other authoritarian governments.

"These authoritarian states are looking to keep greater control over their people," said Cooper. "And this is one way to do it."

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