It could happen here: How China's social credit system demonstrates the future of social control in smart cities

Adam Greenfield (previously) is one of the best thinkers when it comes to the social consequences of ubiquitous computing and smart cities; he's the latest contributor Ian Bogost's special series on "smart cities" for The Atlantic (previously: Bruce Sterling, Molly Sauter).

Greenfield writes about China's "Citizen Scores", a rapidly growing system of social control that marries your credit report, internet usage, location data, snitching by your peers, and other factors (like your perceived "sincerity") to determine whether you can borrow money, use high-speed transport, get a job, or rent an apartment.

This system — still in its early days, but aggressively pushed by the Chinese authorities and relentlessly executed by China's tech giants like Tencent and Alibaba — is already changing the nature of urban life in China. The system is opaque and it's impossible for someone to know whether they've been denied something as a form of punishment, or what triggered that punishment, inspiring a kind of high-tech paranoiac Kafkaism.

There's nothing about Citizen Scores that makes it inherently Chinese. Western cities have implemented secret, wide-ranging mass surveillance, from CCTV to license-plate cameras to Stingray cell-site simulators. What's more, western nations have happily adopted China's internet surveillance and control tactics, from blocking order to mass internet surveillance to the creation of astroturf armies to push the state agenda.

And China got the idea of Citizen Scores from western credit bureaus, like Equifax, which operates with such impunity that even leaking the sensitive data of virtually every adult American has no real consequences.

The Chinese-Western feedback loop involves each worsening the other's worst ideas, lather-rinse-repeating in the most dystopian of fashion. China's social control is just neoliberal capitalism's social control, plus ten years.

As private enterprise takes an increasingly prominent role in the creation and management of ostensibly public urban space, as neo-authoritarianism spreads unchecked, and as pervasive technology weaves itself ever more intimately into all the sites and relations of contemporary life, all of the material conditions are right for Chinese-style social credit to spread on other ground. Consider what Sidewalk Labs' neighborhood-scale intervention in Toronto implies—or the start-up Citymapper's experiments with privatized mass transit in London, or even Tinder's control over access to the pool of potential romantic partners in cities around the world—and it's easy to imagine a network of commercial partners commanding all the choke points of urban life. The freedoms that were once figured as a matter of "the right to the city" would become contingent on algorithmically determined certification of good conduct.

It would be remarkably easy to achieve. It's just a matter of making explicit the determinations that already go into credit scores—of binding together the data brokerages that even now siphon up public records, social-media profiles, web searches, and similar digital traces of life here in the West, and making our rights and privileges as city dwellers and citizens contingent on what they infer from our behavior. Unless this tendency is contested and defeated now, what has unfolded in China since 2014 might become an early preview of the way order is achieved and maintained in the cities of the 21st century.

China's Dystopian Tech Could Be Contagious [Adam Greenfield/The Atlantic]

(Image: chensiyuan, CC-BY-SA)

(via Beyond the Beyond)