A Perfect Eden

[Ed Note : The following post has been authored by Anupriya Nair, a second year student of NALSAR University of Law. In an interesting and chilling read, Anupriya talks about the potential emergence of China-inspired social credit systems in India which essentially monitor our actions to tell us how trustworthy we are. What exactly does this entail? Read to find out more!]

Unlocking Novel Frontiers of Digital Control: The Potential Emergence of Social Credit Systems in India

Development of technology has begun to tread the fine line between liberation and oppression of society. In other words, the ever-evolving digital sphere has led us to face the paradox of having means to achieve new levels of inclusivity (liberation) while running an exponentially large risk of highly intrusive surveillance (oppression).

This dilemma was addressed in Charlie Brooker’s dystopian series Black Mirror. In an episode “Nosedive”[1], Brooker depicted a society in which every member possessed a personal score ranging anywhere between 0 to 5. These personal scores were determined based on rankings from people who viewed the member’s profile and rated their posts. Further, a change in this score could result in significant socioeconomic consequences.

Given the importance of the score to the quality of life of an individual in society, every human interaction was transformed into an exercise of disingenuous camaraderie, for fear that a stray remark would result in a poor rating, creating a world where everybody strived to be trustworthy and respectful towards one another, creating a perfect Eden.

This perfect Eden could be a reality for China by 2020. The Communist Party, with the aim of building a socialist utopia under its able guidance, has been developing a social credit system in which it intends to inculcate a culture of “trustworthiness” and “sincerity” into its society.

This system of social credit would involve the government monitoring every digitally traceable action of an individual, making it a powerful force that collects copious amounts of sensitive information on nearly every interaction made by an individual. The system would consequently assign each individual a numerical score that acts as a direct indicator of one’s “trustworthiness”.

One of the most prominent state-approved pilot projects currently in place is run by Zhima Credit (Sesame Credit), the subsidiary financial wing of the world’s biggest online shopping platform, Alibaba. Users of the Alibaba mobile app may voluntarily request to be provided with a social credit score based on not only their credit history, but their behaviour as well.

The need for such a social credit system arises out of the lack of a traditional functioning credit system that is generally built based on mortgage and credit card bill payment patterns of individuals. In China however, consumers primarily use cash and the country’s central banking regulator (The People’s Bank of China) doesn’t maintain adequate financial records of their consumers either. Since adhering to the traditional mode of credit scoring is not a viable option for the citizens of China, they decided to opt for other means of determining their credit risk. The Zhima system thus has a large number of citizens volunteering to avail the social credit facility provided by Alibaba. A poor Zhima score cannot get a citizen blacklisted, given that the government concluded that it would not be permissible to allow a private corporation to have control over such sensitive areas.

China, in addition to the eight firms authorized to conduct such alternative credit score programmes, has a local government approved social credit score regime in place as well. Although the government contends that the regime has been designed to be “objective” in nature, it ultimately draws a parallel to the understanding of what constitutes “good” and “bad” behaviour according to the government. Further, the scores in this regime operate on a 1000-point scale and can have an impact on the socioeconomic benefits available to a person, their implications ranging from an individual’s opportunity to apply for a government job, to sending their children to an elite private school.[2] The scores are therefore an omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient force to be reckoned with.

As stated in a high-level policy document released in September, the overriding principle that this social credit regime aims to follow at its core is: “If trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere.”[3]

Some elements of the social credit system appear to be making its way to India with the Income Tax department reportedly chalking out a new policy where “honest” and consistent taxpayers will be rewarded. As per the proposal by the Central Board of Direct Taxes, honest taxpayers are to receive priority treatment in accessing public services at places such as airports or railway stations. According to the Press Trust of India, “honest” taxpayers could be issued special identification numbers or be flagged as a special part of the maiden taxpayer facilitation proposal in their permanent account number (PAN).

Evidently, apart from creating a metric to determine one’s credit score, the primary vision of the implementation of a social credit system is to strive to achieve a utopian future for society. The question is, at what cost are we willing to adopt to this process of Eden-ification? Just as the Aadhar has previously been labelled as a mass surveillance tool, a social credit system would involve the collection and storage of highly sensitive personal information which could indeed become a target for hackers as previously demonstrated by various flaws and reported hacks within the Aadhar database itself.

Apart from the surveillance and privacy concerns, there is also the possibility that this system would imbibe a sense of disingenuity in its users. The best course of action inevitably involves understanding the “objective” system and using it to your advantage. This results in a number game of sorts where everyone is after a higher score instead of genuinely striving to become a better person out of one’s own volition.

Finally, the standards set in a social credit system cannot be “objective” given that the quality being standardised is trustworthiness. There is no objective panel from society or democratic process being utilised to set the standards of “trustworthiness” or “socially acceptable behaviour” in society. This is obviously a wrongful imposition of power. Further, those involved in the actual creation of these “objective” standards have an unfair advantage in earning a higher score due to their proximity to the programme itself.

In conclusion, it is not wrong to strive to build a perfect Eden for ourselves. The issue lies with the highly problematic and abuse-prone means by which we intend to reach our goal of doing so.

References – 

[1] Joe Wright, (Director). (2016, October 21). Nosedive [Television series episode], In Laurie Borg (Producer), Black Mirror. Netflix.

[2] Alice Vincent, Black Mirror is coming true in China, where your “rating” affects your home, transport and social circle, The Telegraph, Dec. 15, 2017, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/on-demand/2017/12/15/black-mirror-coming-true-china-rating-affects-home-transport/ (last visited Nov 21, 2018)

[3] China’s plan to organize its society relies on ‘big data’ to rate everyone – The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/chinas-plan-to-organize-its-whole-society-around-big-data-a-rating-for-everyone/2016/10/20/1cd0dd9c-9516-11e6-ae9d-0030ac1899cd_story.html?utm_term=.76106c42e93e (last visited Nov 21, 2018)

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