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China's social credit system is coming to America

June 25 · Issue #347 · View online
The Interface
I had a great time answering reader questions about the future of content moderation on Reddit today — please check them out if you like!
Sometime next year, China’s social credit system is scheduled to be fully operational. The system, which comprises a patchwork of state and private efforts, tracks citizens’ behavior in various ways and then dishes out a variety of punishments and rewards based on their performance. Smoke in a no-smoking area and you’ll be banned from buying a business-class train ticket; maintain a positive reputation and your application to travel to Europe will be approved more quickly.
I’ve linked to stories about China’s social-credit ambitions here several times over the past couple years, but never written about them at any length. Until recently, the social credit system struck me as a particularly grim aspect of life under authoritarian regime — one unlikely to ever materialize in the United States.
And yet the more I look around, the more it seems like an American social credit system is springing up around us — and it doesn’t look all that different from China’s.
Here are a few items we’ve seen over the past few weeks that speak to how quickly Chinese-style behavior monitoring is spreading to the United States.
There are obvious differences here between efforts here and in China. In the United States, social credit systems are independent from one another. And with the exception of the visa application, they have yet to make real inroads in the government.
And yet looking at the pace of development here, I wonder how long that will be true. As more companies acquire data sets about bad behavior among customers, the temptation to license that data to other companies could be irresistible. And if private companies have created highly accurate, comprehensive lists of bad actors across various industries, won’t the government seek access to that information as well? What will it do with that information, if so?
Bloomberg traveled throughout China this month to see how the social credit system was developing and found that it remains fragmented and ineffectual. (See this thread from Bloomberg’s David Fickling.) In part that’s because the ruling party’s leaders are more focused on the trade war with America, according to the report:
It’s not a priority among China’s top leaders to push through a nationwide social-credit scoring system now even if Suzhou and other localities can set up workable models, said Zhang Jian, an associate government professor at Peking University.
“President Xi and his government have been caught up ‘fire fighting’ internal and external pressures since last year,” Zhang said. “I doubt the party leaders are willing to expend the time, energy and political capital to roll out the plan.”
On the other hand, they’ve expended plenty of time and energy building the infrastructure so far. Over time, it seems inevitable that these surveillance systems will ratchet up in effectiveness and consequences.
It’s still hard to imagine the US government cobbling together its own national social-credit system from the various private efforts we’ve seen this year. But it does seem likely that the tools now being created by the tech industry will have ugly consequences for at least some portion of the citizenry. The whole system is currently coming together with seemingly very little public conversation. We might want to change that while we can still exert some influence over it.

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soo hungry need to find my wife and head to pf changs
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