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Why a social credit system is so scary.

Mass surveillance is all around us, and the potential consequences should freak you out.

2019-10-21
It's Free Speech Week. So let's take a look at the worst enemy of freedom of speech: mass surveillance and its consequences. The modern form of mass surveillance, online surveillance, is easy, cheap and instanteneous. Surveillance results gathered online can be easily aggregated and calculated for real-life consequences, for example to establish a social credit system. And this affects freedom of speech, in one of the worst ways possible.

Social credit system

When people hear social credit system, everyone thinks of China and the upcoming Chinese system to make people live according to the government's rules. Yet, social credit systems are already in place in many more countries, even here in Europe and America.

Private social credit system

Of course, no one calls it social credit system, but if you think about it, it's already here: The insurance company that calculates your risk premium based on information gathered from social media. The bank that calculates your financial credibility and, thus, your interest rates, based on information provided by the Schufa (German system). AirBnB and Uber disabling accounts, for example if a home owner or driver reported you for 'bad behavior', without giving you any choice to appeal.

These are just some examples that clearly show that some form of social credit system is already established. There are companies that gather information about you that lead to consequences based on this information. That's basically the same as a social credit system.

The only difference to the looming Chinese system is that it is not yet inter-connected. If Uber blocks you, you can still use a Taxi. If one insurance asks for a high premium, you can try to get another. But what if this changes?

The web is a surveillance machine

As it stands today, you are what you click. As soon as you access the internet, everything you do is being tracked by your browser, by third parties with the help of cookies, by almost all the sites you keep being logged in (Google, Facebook, etc.).

The entire internet is a mere surveillance machine. The data you freely give is aggregated and a profile about you is being created. Up to now this profile is 'only' being used for targeted advertisements.

The consequences right now are not nice, but also not too bad: The advertisements shown to you might lead to overpriced products and services because your profile suggests that you are willing to pay too much for these things. Whether because you are a fan, or because you like the convenience of a quick buy, or simply because you have too much money and, thus, don't care.

Right now it is easy to filter out the consequences of online surveillance by simply installing an ad-blocker.

Interconnected surveillance machine

Right now, every company and every public agency only has a subset of data. However, it is very likely that in the future all the data available online will be connected.

If you use several Google services, this is already happening. Yet with better tracking technology, tech companies will find a way to connect your data gathered across services: Your Google user profile will be merged with your Facebook profile will be merged with your insurance profile and so on.

And that's exactly what sounds so scary about the Chinese social credit system: Western media suggest that this merging of information is already being done in China. The connection of lots of information about individual people leading to an individual score that either helps them achieve the things they want in life or prevents them from same.

As soon as this happens, as soon as all data is connected and a profile about you is established, it will be very difficult to change this profile.

Real-life consequences

This virtual profile of yours will lead to real-life consequences: You might not get the loan you need to buy a home because of a bad social credit. You might not get a car insurance, and thus, are stuck with public transport because of a bad social credit.

Most people think that these consequences will not affect them because they lead a good life. After all, that's the aim of any social credit system: force people to lead a good life. And what's so bad about this?

Definition of 'good'

The problem is the definition of 'good': For companies 'good' might imply people who are recurring customers, who buy too much and spend too much.

For governments 'good' might mean people who follow the rules and don't speak up. Ever. No matter what the government decides.

Social credit system kills freedom

Either way, whether you want to please a company in the hope of getting a better deal or a government, any form of social credit system will lead to self-censorship.

You will no longer post your pictures from last night's party on social media out of fear your health insurance might go up. Or you will no longer post pictures from the demonstration you went out of fear that your government will not let you go to university.

Even worse: You might stop partying or going to demonstrations altogether.

In the end, the social credit system will lead to self-censorship to an extend we have never seen before. Fueled by all-round online surveillance, the majority of people will try to present themselves in the best way possible, always and everywhere, even in their private conversations.

Freedom of speech is undermined by social credit systems

Freedom of speech is protected by most constitutions, and this for a very good reason. Only with freedom of speech we can discuss any issue freely, develop new ideas, and evolve our democracies into better places for everyone.

Any social credit system - be it private or public - undermines freedom of speech.

Even though, in our Western democracies, there's no state actor trying to implement such a system, the threat is still there.

While we perceive the Chinese social credit system as 'bad' - because a non-democratic government wants to use it to make its citizens follow the rules, the private social credit systems that are currently emerging in our societies are no better.

Freedom of speech needs privacy

That's why freedom of speech and privacy are interlinked. Only if you can keep your private data private, it is impossible for state actors or companies to harvest your data and create a profile about you.

Unfortunately, tech companies are much faster in developing surveillance apps and services than state actors are in making laws to protect our right to privacy, such as the European GDPR for example.

Right now, the only option we have to protect ourselves from extensive data mining is to choose services that protect our privacy. To make a start, here are our recommendations how you can leave Google & Facebook behind.

Fight with us for our right to privacy!

Secure email team Tutanota

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