We do not complain when surveillance makes us safe; when cameras can alert us to an upcoming traffic jam, or protect us from crime. We even welcome it. There is however considerable resistance to state surveillance, because even with checks and balances and the rule of law, the suspicion remains that an unscruplous government could abuse the system.
The police forces already have an arsenal of cameras and technology that can be deployed to recognise faces or even morphology in a crowd, and these can be used to arrest troublemakers at a protest, or trade union leaders during a strike, for example. If phone company records are accessible, our movements can be tracked, and our behaviour analysed. In our interconnected world, privacy is being eroded by the day.
Companies increasingly use technology to steer our purchases and advertise things to us before we even know we must have them. Simply good business for some, sharp practise for others.
However now the Chinese government is taking the plethora of tools available and binding them together in an all-encompassing system of social monitoring and control the likes of which the world has never seen outside the pages of "1984" or an episode of "Black Mirror". And while the Chinese people have little say in whether or not they are going to allow a system like this to take over their daily lives, in the developed world we do.
Yet we may be sleepwalking our way towards a nightmare should any other government decide to implement such a system - and we can be sure some are studying the Chinese example very closely.
The Chinese "Social Credits" system is up and running. In 2014 Beijing published the "Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020)", and wasted little time in implementing it.
Its promoters insist it is to reinforce "trust" in Chinese society, especially in the field of business regulation, determining people's credit-worthiness, and cracking down on fraud and financial crime, which costs the country dear. It is especially important in a country where few people have a credit history, and banks are desperate to extend credit to more and more people, chasing custom.
Take for example Zhima Credit, a subsidiary of online retailing ginat AliBaba. It examines people's behaviour to determine their credit-worthiness, so buying nappies is an indication of parenthood, (read: responsible adult), while spending time playing computer games is a sign you're just a slacker. Your "social credit score" can go up or down, and ig it goes too low, you are denied a loan.
It goes beyond what you personally do. If you have a neighbour or friend who has fallen foul of the system and has a low social credit score, simply saying "good morning" to them might trigger a network response downgrading your score. Those with high scores find they get benefits, like no-deposit hotle rooms for example, or airline upgrades. Those with low scores may not even be allowed to get on the plane.
What is deemed good or bad behaviour is centrally determined by the government or local authority. One city is giving its citizens a lump sum of points, then deducting them for, say, littering, or adding them for "good" behaviour and honouring them with their photos displayed in public. Offenders might find it hard to get a government job, or the school of their choice for their children.
Mass surveillance has existed in totalitarian states before. The Stasi in the former East Germany was especially good at it, turning people into informers on the people around them. What is new is that China is forging a nexus of mass surveillance with big data and Artificial Intelligence in which there will be few or no cracks. This will extend to international companies and their employees doing business in China, and the tens of millions of Chinese in the diaspora.
Venezuela introduced electronic ration cards in 2014 and ever since there have been accusations only people loyal to the Maduro government have been allowed access to certain vital supplies. The Soviet Union also practiced a similar scheme, but just imagine how much deeper and far-ranging China's system could be, with all the advantages of AI and Big Data at its disposal. Do enough to displease the authorities, and it seems easy to become a "non-person".
Now imagine it happening in the US, or Europe. Some have called the Chinese system the beginning of the end of free will. Now the technology exists the overwhelming tempation will be to use it. Only we, the people, can prevent an IT-supported authoritarianism from happening.
For the moment China is busy integrating a multitude of datbases from companies, local authorities, and state entities, so Big Brother is not yet entirely omnipotent...yet. But come 2020 the whole project is supposed to form a seamless whole, so woe betide any dissenters then.