China's "social credit" system is already blacklisting many citizens

It was only a couple of months ago when we looked at China’s creepy new “social credit score” system, which they claimed would be ready to put into effect in the next two years. Under that program, the government would be able to keep tabs on all of the activities and speech of its citizens, singling out bad actors with the “wrong sort of ideas” for blacklisting and repression. (Your neighbors can also report you for any perceived offenses and help the government pin you down.)

As it turns out, two years was a lowball estimate. They’ve already got the social credit score program up and running in a number of areas. And literally millions of Chinese citizens are finding themselves suddenly ineligible for good government jobs as well as being unable to purchase tickets for travel by plane or even train. (SCMP)

Millions of Chinese individuals and businesses have been labeled as untrustworthy on an official blacklist banning them from any number of activities, including accessing financial markets or traveling by air or train, as the use of the government’s social credit system accelerates.

The annual blacklist is part of a broader effort to boost “trustworthiness” in Chinese society and is an extension of China’s social credit system, which is expected to give each of its 1.4 billion citizens a personal score.

The social credit system assigns both positive and negative scores for individual or corporate behaviour in an attempt to pressure citizens into behaving.

Businesses that receive a low “trustworthy score” are being blocked from obtaining loans or other financial services. Individuals lose their jobs in many cases and are restricted in their movements. And all of this comes about without most of them ever breaking a single law or being accused of a crime. They’re simply not “good enough citizens.” And every person in the country will have their own personal score soon.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Chinese are also building a massive bank of DNA information. It’s primarily being done to help them keep tabs on the Uighurs (they have roughly a million of them in detention camps already), but they will eventually have everyone’s DNA in the database. And to accomplish this sweeping goal in a nation with a population measured in the billions, they’ve enlisted the help of one Massachusetts company and a Yale professor of genetics. (NY Times)

To bolster their DNA capabilities, scientists affiliated with China’s police used equipment made by Thermo Fisher, a Massachusetts company. For comparison with Uighur DNA, they also relied on genetic material from people around the world that was provided by Kenneth Kidd, a prominent Yale University geneticist.

On Wednesday, Thermo Fisher said it would no longer sell its equipment in Xinjiang, the part of China where the campaign to track Uighurs is mostly taking place. The company said separately in an earlier statement to The New York Times that it was working with American officials to figure out how its technology was being used.

Dr. Kidd said he had been unaware of how his material and know-how were being used. He said he believed Chinese scientists were acting within scientific norms that require informed consent by DNA donors.

This is the “Nosedive” episode of Black Mirror brought to life. (If you’ve never watched that one you should check it out.) In the United States, we expect law enforcement to only utilize DNA information when investigating actual crimes. And while your neighbors or even your employer may judge you for your social media activity, the government isn’t allowed to respond by limiting your speech or your freedom based on your opinions. (At least for now.)

But China in 2019 should serve as an excellent example of a cautionary tale for us. If you continue to surrender more and more power to the state rather than the law-abiding individual, you never know what they’ll wind up doing with that power. The Chinese are giving you a pretty good idea, though. And thanks to the wonders of modern technology they can really take that ball and run with it.