Opinion

China's tyrannical new 'credit score' is a warning to America

The score reportedly mixes your finances with your political opinions and search history. Could it happen here?

So here's an interesting bit of news: China is putting together a credit scoring system.

Well, that doesn't sound that interesting. But wait till you hear the details.

According to ACLU Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley, the system will not just use your financial history, as in the U.S. credit system, but will have a much more "Big Data" approach and will include all of your data — including from your social network account and search history. In fact, the system will be run by Tencent and Alibaba, the companies that run China's biggest social networks.

"[U]sed to calculate scores is information about hobbies, lifestyle, and shopping," Stanley writes. "Buying certain goods will improve your score, while others (such as video games) will lower it."

But wait, that's not all. "In addition to measuring your ability to pay, as in the United States, the scores serve as a measure of political compliance. Among the things that will hurt a citizen’s score are posting political opinions without prior permission, or posting information that the regime does not like[.]"

But wait! It gets even better! "It will hurt your score not only if you do these things, but if any of your friends do them."

And obviously, a high score is explicitly tied to receiving government benefits. Already, people in China are bragging on social networks about getting high scores.

Welcome, as they say, to the Brave New World.

Which, in a post-Snowden era, inevitably raises the question: "Could this happen in the United States?"

I wish the answer was just laughter, and not of the grim kind.

At least without the political compliance bit, Silicon Valley startups are already hard at work, and lavishly funded by venture capital firms, at this very idea, to turn your social networking data into better credit rating information. And in itself, that's not necessarily bad financial innovation — lending money to people who couldn't repay it, after all, was a big factor in the 2008 financial crisis.

But could it morph into something more?

In the left-wing paranoid's version of the story, you could imagine this as a purely private initiative — say, an alliance between Facebook, Google, and Apple and major banks, to provide this as a public service. Of course, you could "opt out" any time you'd like, but you'd find out that if you didn't opt in, you couldn't get a credit card, or you couldn't rent an apartment. Maybe eventually the sort of "speech" that would harm your score wouldn't be political as much as anti-corporate or anti-consumerist. For instance, your score would take a hit if you're critical of the way corporate America is relentlessly hostile to family life.

In the right-wing paranoid's version of the story, it would be a much more government-driven affair, although megacorporations would be all-too willing to participate. In the interest of social justice, minorities and women and people who identify of a different gender than the one they're born in would get a bump. And I'm sure we can find a Harvard economist to put out a model that says if you own a gun, you're a danger to society, and so that should affect your score. And if you don't buy the right kind of health insurance, then for sure, you shouldn't be able to buy a home.

Now obviously this is all just a bit far-fetched. But the problem is that it doesn't feel that far-fetched, does it?

We're all already aware that our employers google us and that we should watch what we post on social networks. And certainly most of us seem to not mind that the government reads our email.

And hey, maybe we shouldn't care. When the new Credit Score System(tm) comes out, don't worry if everything you read from me suddenly becomes very friendly to whatever party is in power. I mean, I have kids, I need to buy them a good home.

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