The government seeks new ways to control citizens

In the movie with Tom Cruise, police could predict crimes before they happened and arrest criminals in advance. The Minority Report movie raises some ethical questions about whether it’s right or not to blame someone for something they haven’t committed yet. However, China seems to be taking this direction.

China is maybe the most surveilled country, with cameras on each corner of the streets and facial recognition technology. But there’s worse. They also use a social credit system where citizens are given a score according to how they behave in society. The idea was launched in 2014 as an opt-in system, but over the years, the government has made incentives to adopt it and disincentives to not. Anyway, the target is to make it mandatory.

You start with a certain number of points that can increase or decrease according to your behavior. For example, donating to charity could raise your score while jaywalking could lower it. While your score decreases, you lose certain rights such as booking a flight or a train ticket. But there’s worse because you could also be blacklisted which includes more severe penalties such as less access to credit or a public shaming exposure where people’s faces of those who break the rules are shown on TV or in public spaces.

china's social credit system
China’s social credit system. Photo by Bertelsmann Stiftung

However, as reported, the Chinese government is currently concentrating its monitoring efforts on attempting to create profiles of Chinese citizens using a variety of data points collected to inform automated systems to detect prospective dissidents or criminals before they have a chance to commit crimes.

China is developing an Internet that is substantially different from the one used in the West so much so that we can call it a “surveillance economy”. The Chinese government wants to restrict its citizens’ online behavior to the extent that it has implemented live stream curfews, tracked social media users’ locations, set time limits for children to play online games, and required direct access to user data kept on private cloud servers.

Chinese IT giants have been attempting to influence international surveillance standards for years. But there’s more: China may be planning to use the enormous amounts of data it has been gathering for years to build a monitoring system that unnervingly resembles the one featured in the 2002 film Minority Report.

The new technology is made to sift through data gathered on citizens’ daily actions and look for patterns and anomalies that could indicate when protests or crimes are likely to occur. Documents that have been leaked show that this automated surveillance will create profiles that include information on gender, race, biometrics, criminal histories, mental problems, and more. An electronic alarm will be sent to adjacent police units when several people who are thought to be high-risk assemble in the same area.

At the moment, China is still looking for proposals from companies willing to donate the necessary technology to create this sophisticated surveillance system. Meanwhile, a large surveillance contractor by the name of Megvii is said to have developed software that can link a person to all of the digital accounts they use to access online services and track their movements and daily activities. In addition, Chinese police are said to have acquired a database of over 2.5 billion facial images.

The evolution of A.I. and deep learning algorithms, along with ever more elaborated face recognition systems, could be very dangerous when the intentions are not good. A government that controls people so much that it keeps you out of society, it’s very scary, especially because you don’t have weapons to defend yourself. When you are just a number and nobody cares about your rights, this leads to a dystopic world where people don’t live quietly but are afraid to be kicked out. And it doesn’t have to do with following correct behavior because this is just an excuse to have control over people. Even a diligent person, one day, could end up in a circumstance where they can’t follow a rule and would be punished. For a cold mechanic system, there aren’t exceptions, therefore anybody is at risk. That’s why we need to avoid this kind of use of these systems in advance before they become rooted for bad purposes.