‘Big brother’ watches Chinese and we may be next for one

‘Big brother’ watches Chinese and we may be next for one, by Oliver Moody.

Perhaps you were late with your council rates. Perhaps you absent-mindedly wandered across a road without waiting for the red light. Perhaps a neighbour dobbed you in to the local authority for putting coffee grounds in your shared recycling bin.

Whatever your misdeed – and it is possible that you will never know exactly what it was – one day things start to go wrong. It is hardly perceptible at first. You might go to pay at the till in a convenience store only to discover that your credit card has been blocked. When you walk into certain upmarket restaurants, an alarm goes off and you are discreetly bundled out by a couple of waiters.

Your sullied past follows you around like a shadow. You are banned from flying or taking trains. When people call your phone, the ringtone is transmogrified into a blaring police siren followed by a synthesised voice identifying you as a “discredited person” to everyone in earshot. Eventually your face and your national insurance number begin to appear on five-metre-tall television screens in the city centre.

This is the situation in which several million Chinese people are stuck today. By the end of 2020 Beijing intends to give each of the 1.3 billion citizens under its jurisdiction a “social credit” score that measures his or her trustworthiness and rectitude. Almost every aspect of an individual’s life, from their career prospects to the speed of their internet connection, will in theory come to depend upon this single number.

Some thinkers regard these plans as the perfection of the art of dictatorship, an “authoritarian dreamworld” whose ideology could spread around the world like a virus and whose legitimacy is secured by the most comprehensive and powerful state surveillance apparatus in history. “It’s so dystopian,” Johan Lagerkvist, professor of Chinese language and culture at the University of Stockholm, says. “They are going the full monty. The direction and the ambition are really draconian.”

Others draw uncomfortable parallels between the way Beijing is weaving together vast skeins of data on its citizens and the addiction of Facebook and Google to the personal information of their users. Yet much remains uncertain. Is the government truly prepared to embrace belt-and-braces cybertotalitarianism, with all the effort and expense that will entail? Is the technology up to the job? And surely it could never happen here – could it?

Until it does. There is no government in the world that will not be looking with interest at this.

hat-tip Stephen Neil, Philip Barton