facial recognition social credit surveillance biometrics privacy

China’s Social Credit System Raises Privacy Concerns over Surveillance

Imagine your FICO score. Not a good image? Now imagine it on steroids. Rather than just credit-worthiness, the score also dictates whether you can be promoted. On the other side of the score, government officials can track your purchases and rank them on morality. Did you buy a new video game instead of paying off your student loans? -1 for you. Posted about Tiananmen Square on social media? -1000.

Big Brother is Watching

It sounds like an episode of the hit TV show Black Mirror, but China is set to have a government-sponsored social credit system built into its citizens’ lives in just a few short years. Recently, China’s research has grown in the realm of facial recognition, releasing more patents than any other country and five times more than the United States. Citizens enjoy more streamlined processes thanks to facial recognition, from cleaner bathrooms to faster ATM withdrawals. Criminals are now wary of showing their faces in any public space. In a sea of more than 50,000 concert goers, a wanted man was apprehended. Undeniably, citizens are benefitting.

But this all comes at a price. The heightened presence of cameras in the public vicinity is designed to slowly create the infrastructure that will ultimately become the social credit system.

Several initiatives have already been featured in the news:

  • Due to the horrible driving conditions in major cities around China, the government set up a camera system with artificial intelligence and facial recognition software to catch jaywalkers. Once caught, your face is matched to the government’s database, and you’re sent a fine via text. On certain roads, if you try to jaywalk, water guns will simply spray you to deter your illegal activity.
  • Police stations across China upgraded their surveillance techniques through facial recognition glasses. Already tested in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, the glasses helped apprehend more than five criminals traveling through train stations. These glasses are used not only to match identities to the country’s criminals, but to also find known government dissenters and human rights activists on the government blacklist.

China Justifies its Surveillance System

Despite criticism over privacy and human rights, China has produced results from its programs. Criminals are being caught and jaywalking has fallen by 80 percent, finally allowing for a more organized city.

Building an ever present social credit system, however, is a big leap from the current initiatives. Theory never works like we hope it will. For example, a similar project took place in a province north of Shanghai in 2010. The local government began awarding citizens point for good behavior and deducting for bad behavior like traffic violations. Just like a credit score, those with more points were eligible for quicker service in several domains. Reports, however, complained of its inefficiencies and questioned why certain data was collected.

Biometric Responsibility

So where does that leave us in the United States? Joking NSA memes pop up on my Facebook feed all the time asking “do I get assigned a new NSA agent when I switch IP addresses or is it one per person?” While the United States isn’t heading for a totalitarian state, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal affected many citizens lives without them knowing it.  

In most societies we’ve accepted that to have safety, we must give up a little bit of privacy. It’s like the case of healthcare, for each individual to be healthy, we need the population to be healthy. What should the constraints for biometric technology be, particularly ones that can be used in public surveillance? Do we really need to sacrifice privacy? These are questions we have to continually ask as biometric research continues further.

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