Some weeks ago, I was watching ‘Black Mirror’ with my tech-savvy daughter. It is an interesting British science fiction compilation of television series examining modern society, particularly with regard to the unanticipated dark side and consequences of new technologies. It made me wonder of the possibilities wherein just a few more leaps in technology may easily lead our world into a Black Mirror canvas. A terrifying episode “Nosedive” resonated with changes in recent times. With exaggerations, this episode explored future scenarios when a person’s entire personality and life will be judged by social platforms. The episode imagines a world where Social media and Instagram-friendly perfection reigns, with disastrous consequences.
Fast forward, Dec 13th 2019, an interesting news article in ETPanache caught my attention. The article mentions a court order which banned Wang Sicong, son of Wang Jianlin a Chinese real estate mogul and the heir to $12.7 billion fortune from partying, going on vacations, visiting night clubs and even travelling first class. According to the media reports, Wang’s court order may be in accordance with the country’s strict social credit system, which monitors the behaviour of its 1.4 billion citizens. The system will be fully functional by 2020. According to this mandatory scheme people can be rewarded, punished or banned based on their social credit scores.
Let us try and understand the concept of a ‘Social Credit Score (SCS)’. We are familiar with the term ‘CIBIL Score’ which is a three-digit numeric summary of an individual’s credit history. This CIR (Credit Information Report), quantifies one’s credit and financial health. A good CIBIL score builds ‘reputational collateral’ with lenders like banks and financial institutions. Similarly, ‘Social Credit Score’ is a summary of scores calculated from various big data sources including administrative, transactional, sensor, tracking, behavioural and opinion data. The purpose of a social credit system is to engineer socially acceptable behaviours, promote good conduct, and control a society based on the norms and values governing its system.
Big data analytics is rapidly transforming our lives. Emerging tools and techniques increasingly allow organizations to aggregate data into large, integrated systems that can predict patterns of consumer purchases, preferences and behaviours. Reports indicate some government agencies and private companies are collecting enormous amounts of data. An individual’s data would include finances, Social media activities, credit history, health records, online purchases, tax payments, legal matters, places visited, friends, family, acquaintances, business colleagues and much more, in addition to his/her images gathered from the country’s surveillance cameras and facial recognition software. SCS data analysis highlights non-compliance with legally prescribed social and economic obligations and contractual commitments. The final scores determine the trustworthiness of companies and individuals. The exact methodology is a secret - but examples of individual infractions include bad driving, smoking in non-smoking zones, buying too many video games, spending a lot of time on social media, posting fake online news, traveling without a ticket, loitering in front of boarding gates, or smoking in no smoking zones, even if your best friend’s dad says something negative about the government, you are likely to lose points because it means you chose to keep unpatriotic association . The rewards for good scores could translate into discounts on energy bills, speeded up travel applications, better job opportunities and dating match options, better schools for the kids etc. The punishments for bad social scores could be restricted travel options and banned on flights, throttled internet speeds, exclusion from selection to jobs in state owned companies and big banks, no credit card and loan approvals etc.
The implementing government and state media maintain the project is designed to boost public confidence and fight problems like corruption, business frauds eventually leading to increase control, personal safety and economic morality. However, some critics see social credit systems as an invasive surveillance mechanism for punishing dissidents, invading on people’s privacy and instigating social death. Beyond traditional concerns over data privacy and cybersecurity, this form of social ranking poses deeper ethical dilemmas.
A socially constructed algorithm of “trustworthiness” can become an ethical quicksand that has a potential of creating a new class system and divide people into haves and have-nots. The dilemma of conformity vs. coercion is critical to address. Instead of striving for originality, creative ideas and free-thinking, people will confirm to prescribed norms due to fear of persecution. Many experts opine a possibility of people being forced to lead a double life and do everything to escape the great eye of Sauron (Lord of the Rings - a symbol of power and fear) which constantly watches over them. Such situations may lead to a culture of lies, deceit, violent pushbacks and ultimately economic and social collapse. A subsequent ethical dilemma is the issue of transparency vs. trafficking. The use of gamification with social status scores means that both individual absolute scores and position relative to others becomes important. On the positive side, public disclosure of people’s rankings provide points of comparison and transparency. However, it can create an inadvertent incentive for students and professionals to use unethical or underground means to improve their overall score and their relative position. A black market for high ranking fictitious identities and influenced/negotiated reports may come into play. There may be constant attempts to disrupt or breach the system and its operations by the dark web.
The tyranny of algorithms is upon us. The most important question arising here is, Are we just data coerced to behave in certain prescribed ways? Or emancipated thinking beings capable of making empowered choices to create a better world.