Dhaka, Bangladesh
Planet of the apps

Planet of the apps

By Zarrar Khuhro

IF you've ever used an app, whether on a smartphone or computer, you'll inevitably have received a request to rate that app. The same goes for restaurants, which place great store by their ratings on Facebook and so on. After all, if enough people downvote a particular restaurant fewer people will feel inclined to dine there, making such establishments incredibly sensitive to negative social media feedback. But what if the tables were turned? What if you tried to book a table at a restaurant and were rejected because your rating as a human being was too low? Watchers of TV shows like Black Mirror and The Orville would find such a scenario frighteningly familiar, a dystopian imagining of a possible future, but one that would certainly never come to pass. Except that it has: in 2014 the Chinese government published a document titled Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System envisaging a system in which citizens would be assigned a three-digit score that gauged their 'trustworthiness' or lack thereof; a system that determined how good a citizen you were. That vision has now become a reality, and the social credit system is now being tested with an aim to encompass all of China's 1.2 billion citizens by 2020, something that Chinese journalist Li Hui learned to his dismay last year. What if you were rejected because your rating as a person was too low? He tried to book a plane ticket to Beijing on a travel app only to be rejected. Soon, he found that he was also barred from taking trains or even buying property, and all because his citizen ranking had fallen too low. Why? Apparently because he entered the wrong account number when paying a court fee. But there's more to it: Li was known as a government critic who pushed the boundaries of censorship in China by blogging about alleged corruption and misconduct by government officials. Regardless of the actual reason, Li now finds himself to be an 'unperson' in the Orwellian sense: the victim of a pairing of Big Data and Big Brother. The former is what makes such a project possible; the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook data scandal has laid bare how much of our information is available to those with the tools to harvest it, and in China the government is putting that data to use, cross-referencing the digital trails of its citizens with a state of the art facial recognition system (ironically dubbed Skynet) capable of tracking just about any of its 1.4bn citizens. This is then married to a massive network of CCTV cameras that will number more than 400 million by the year 2020. How effective is this system? Last year, BBC reporter John Sudworth put it to the test by attempting to 'hide' from the cameras. He lasted seven minutes before he was tracked down and mock-arrested. Oh and disguising yourself won't work either, as the system can recognise you by the way you walk. There's more: Chinese police have now rolled out smart eyewear (think of high-tech sunglasses) which has the facial recognition system looped in. At a glance, they know your entire record; they know whether you've been naughty or nice. And, soon, so will everyone else in China. When calculating a citizen's score, everything from his or her online shopping habits to whether or not they pay their bills on time will be factored in. If you happen to spend a great deal of time playing online games, for instance, you may be dubbed as a 'lazy' citizen, with the penalties that implies. Your student records, what you post on social media and even whether or not you tend to jaywalk will be fed into the algorithm and effectively decide your fate. Don't visit your aged parents enough? Well that's a demerit. There are rewards for good behaviour as well: being a 'trustworthy citizen' can get you preferential loans, services and maybe even free gym memberships. Lazarus Liu, who boasts of a score of 722, has his pick of apartments and can even get preferential placement on dating apps (if his wife happens to leave him). Of course, you can in theory bump up your score by performing socially responsible tasks like donating blood and volunteering, so it's not necessary that you'll be in the digital dock for life. For a security-centric and surveillance-heavy state this is a dream come true, and one can well imagine that even countries that nominally value freedom and privacy are secretly drooling at the thought of possessing such capability. Luckily for the rest of us, only China currently seems to have the technology and will to implement this on a national scale with little outcry from a citizenry already used to being watched and measured. It is, nonetheless, not as incredible as it is inevitable that the future will bring us all face-to-face with some version of this all-encompassing surveillance system. The future is almost here, and its ready to rate you.

Share |