George Orwell intended 1984 to be a warning about totalitarianism. China’s government seems to be using it as a guide to build the ultimate surveillance state. Authorities in Beijing will soon assign each of the country’s 1.4 billion citizens a “social credit” score that will rate their trustworthiness and shape their lives in profound ways. (See Briefing.) People who follow the Communist Party’s edicts and pay their bills will get high scores, giving them access to good schools for their kids and favorable mortgage rates. Those who criticize the party or play video games for hours on end could be denied government jobs and benefits, and might see their friends desert them out of fear of what fraternizing with an undesirable will do to their own ratings. Technology will let officials spy on and score almost every aspect of a citizen’s behavior: Social media will reveal private conversations, smartphone payment apps will record purchases, and facial-recognition systems in omnipresent security cameras will track his or her movements.
It’s tempting to think that such all-encompassing surveillance is only possible in an authoritarian state. And yet here in the West, many of us are surrendering our privacy for convenience. In exchange for the free services offered by tech giants like Google and Facebook, we grant access to private messages, videos, and even our precise location so they can serve us ever-more-personalized ads. With a warrant, the NSA and other government agencies can have that data, too. Now, to be liberated from the hassle of having to tap our phones to play music or search the internet, we’re installing always-listening, voice-activated smart speakers like the Amazon Echo in our living rooms and bedrooms. (Amazon won’t say whether it has handed over any Echo data following a government request.) In China, the government imposes Big Brother-like surveillance; here, we volunteer for it through our high-tech toys.
Theunis Bates, Managing editor