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China tests social credit system waters

The Chinese government is implementing a nationwide social credit system. The system is troubling.

The social credit system tracks a person and assigns him a score. The score is supposed to measure his trustworthiness. The Chinese government has already implemented this system regionally and will likely implement it nationally in the near future. The Chinese government’s and its companies’ use of mass surveillance technology allows them to collect a lot of information on the Chinese people. The technology includes artificial intelligence, big data, and facial recognition technology.

The system gives those people who engage in anti-social behavior a low score. Examples include violating laws or rules of etiquette with regard to bills, dogs, garbage, identification cards, mass transportation, reservations, and traffic. Specific examples include eating on mass transit, failing to properly separate one’s garbage, failing to visit one’s elderly parents, jaywalking, making reservations at hotels or restaurants and not showing up, not cleaning up after one’s dog, and running red lights.

The government blacklists those with low scores. It then prevents blacklisted people from buying airline and train tickets and getting fast internet, jobs, loans, and visas. It also prevents children of blacklisted parents from attending various schools and universities. For example, the National Development and Reform Commission of China reports that blacklisting resulted in the denial of 27 million attempts to purchase plane tickets and 6 million attempts to buy train tickets. Buses and movie theaters display the names and faces of blacklisted individuals. This resembles the Two Minutes Hate in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The government also uses low scores to tighten its repression of various minorities, such as the Muslims Uighurs.

The system gives out high scores for pro-social behavior. People with high scores are more likely to get some jobs. They also get reduced waiting time at hospitals and government agencies.

Russia plans to implement a similar system.

Among the interesting issues is whether this system is wrong or bad. Peking University’s Kui Shen argues that the policy is wrong because it violates people’s rights, specifically, their rights to dignity, privacy, and reputation. A problem with the Chinese system is that the government assigns scores and determines rewards and punishments. This exceeds a government’s legitimate authority. Still, one can imagine corporations implementing a nearly identical system. On a side note, there was little, if any, pushback when Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposed that the government take over credit scores and adjust them for social-justice purposes.

The problem with Shen’s argument is that people do not have a right to dignity, privacy, or reputation. The notion that a person has dignity means, roughly, that he merits respect. The problem is that in terms of policy, we respect someone when, and only when, we do not infringe his rights. Hence, respecting someone’s dignity amounts to respecting his rights. As a result, there is no distinct right to dignity and the appeal to it is empty.

The purported right to privacy is no more than a claim that a person’s rights to his body and property be respected. It is disrespected in cases of burglary, trespass, warrantless searches, and so on. Again, it is not a distinct right so much as a label for a grab bag of other rights.

The purported right to a reputation is a right that others not talk or write about a person in an objectionable way. Leaving aside defamation, there is no right that others talk or write about someone in a particular way. The gossips at church and temple do not trample on anyone’s rights.

Writing in The Hill, Tyler Grant, argues that the social credit system is wrong because it is totalitarian. He notes that it resembles Orwell’s 1984 dystopian world. This certainly tracks our intuitions. Grant notes that the West has the machinery to implement such a system because corporations already collect a large amount of data on us. They also censor us. Consider that Big Tech recently censored those who sent out disapproved messages about COVID-19, election fraud, and Hunter Biden.

The problem is that the system can be implemented through methods that individually do not infringe anyone’s right. For example, in the US, a person gets a financial credit score.

A person’s debt level and payment history determine his score. A score gets lowered due to bankruptcy, foreclosures, and repossessions. This score affects a person’s access to insurance, jobs, and loans. While it does not currently affect things such as airplane tickets or university admissions, it is hard to see what is wrong with additional companies using these scores. The scoring companies would likely argue that the widespread use of such scores would discourage people from defaulting on their credit-card bills and college loans.

Even more disturbing is that a credit score could be widened to penalize someone for associating with the wrong people or expressing the wrong ideas. Consider bar associations. In 1998, the Illinois bar association prevented Mathew Hale from practicing law in Illinois because he was a member of the Klu Klux Klan. He had already graduated from law school, passed the bar, and agreed to follow the bar association’s rules. In 1961, the Supreme Court in Konigsberg v. State Bar of California (1961) held that state bar associations could refuse to admit people to the bar because they have bad moral character. If state bar associations may take a person’s views or character into account, it is unclear why credit-scoring companies may not do so.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom fine and imprison people for hate speech. It seems a small step for criminalized speech to also affect people’s credit scores.

While the Chinese social credit system is totalitarian and incredibly troubling, it is difficult to see exactly what is wrong with it. It is worrisome that much of what is going on in the West might serve as a precedent for a social credit system here.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia philosophy professor. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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