Surveillance states tracking your 'social good' could become normal for all

‘There’s been a lot written of very scary, negative coverage regarding social credit in China,’ says Matthew Brennan, a China-based technology expert.

‘The reality on the ground is very different to what is being reported.’

Brennan believes Chinese citizens do have privacy – ‘but it’s difficult to explain how much’.

He draws comparisons with credit score checking systems in the US and UK, which bring in oodles of data from different sources to assess how creditworthy an individual is.

‘These credit score systems in developed markets also monitor consumers,’ he says.

He believes that China is simply embracing technology in new ways.

Large tech companies in China are rolling out new ways of utilising personal data to carry out everyday tasks – from checking in to flights to paying for items in shops.

That comes with significant drawbacks, thinks Gabriele de Seta, a freelance researcher based in Taipei.

‘What happens in China at the moment is that “social media” as an industry is expanding into more “infrastructural” and service domains,’ he says.

That can be ordering a cab through WeChat, a chat app, or booking hospital appointments and paying bills through other services.

The country was among the first to dally with foldable smartphones, and has recently seen smartphones with projectors built-in come to market. But in the near future it will see ticketing for its subway using facial recognition to make payments become more widespread.

Brennan has even demonstrated on his Twitter feed the ability to check in for flights and check out at supermarkets using facial recognition, tied to government ID cards.

‘It’s cropping up all over China in different scenarios, some of which are payment related, some of which aren’t,’ he says.

This may seem like anathema to a western audience, but in China it’s the norm.

‘It’s got a much broader acceptance amongst society,’ Brennan says.

‘People in general are far less suspicious of this technology than we see outside China. People broadly see it as a positive and a way to bring convenience.’

But how much longer will the west last out against the idea of hyperconvenience, even if it means sacrificing some secrecy?

Just as China provided the Four Great Inventions of the past – papermaking, the compass, gunpowder and printing – it has continued into the 21st century.

So often In tech, where China leads, the rest of the world follows… for now at least.

‘I do have some hope that something like [European data protection legislation] GDPR shows the beginning of resistance to untrammelled data collection,’ says Pasquale.

GDPR could prevent big companies from knowing too much about us – and could inadvertently stymie some of China’s biggest technological advances.

What’s most concerning to de Seta is the close integration between these private technology companies and the Chinese government that oversees them.

‘Chinese tech companies are private but subjected to government oversight and steering,’ he says.

‘This blurs the boundaries between private and public services.’

But even private companies having control of our personal data, worries Pasquale.

‘I worry more about businesses because they are extremely adept at making people not only acquiesce to surveillance, but actively want it,’ he says.

Incentivising people to share more personal data in order to, for example, get discounts at shops, is a worrying trend that encourages people to give up more and more of their personal lives and information for the benefit of companies.

As the Cambridge Analytica scandal – and successive issues around the handling of personal data that have rocked Facebook – Silicon Valley’s largest tech firms know an awful lot about us all.

And it’s only a small step towards the government having control of that data.

Despite the controlled economy, and the power of the ruling party in China, Brennan says it’s important to note that their knowledge does have limits.

‘It’s not an all-seeing database like it’s been described by some people. It’s quite far away from that,’ he says.

Western governments compel or encourage users to share personal information, including social media account names.

US immigration asks for personal profile details in order to scan them when entering the country, the UK Department Of Health is nudging people to book GP appointments through apps.

But for some, they can’t be trusted to hold that data securely.

In the US, information gathered by whistleblower Edward Snowden and published by Wikileaks shows that the country’s National Security Agency was listening in on conversations in a way far more invasive than anyone thought.

In the UK, the Snooper’s Charter was widely criticised when proposed in 2014. In the aftermath of Brexit it became law as the Investigatory Powers Act in 2016.

Human rights organisation Liberty has just won a ruling that some of the UK act’s ‘intrusive powers’ are unlawful but it all bodes poorly for those who want to opt out of social media and digital accounts – and the risk of surveillance over it – in the future.

‘In 20 years it might be tough to pay bills or do bureaucracy without some kind of digital account,’ says de Seta.

‘That’s not necessarily social media, it might just be an account that replaces your phone number or ID number.’

So how can we stop the slow slippage into a surveillance state?

‘You need regulators who are not just trying to make the system more fair, more transparent, and eliminating bias,’ Pasquale says.

‘You need regulators who will say: “This is creepy, stop it”.’

Pasquale worries that those checks do not exist.

Current regulation focuses on individualism, that people are able to make up their own minds on what they do and don’t want to share while overlooking the wider effects on society.

‘One person may want to prove to their life insurer they’re on Instagram every day lifting weights and the healthiest percentile of all human beings,’ Pasquale says.

[For that], you won’t intervene. But if you look at the overall structure and the way these things play out over time, you do start saying this is creepy, this is bad.’

Whether the rest of us will be saying the same is another question entirely. A decade ago, we’d have thought it strange to share every aspect of our lives online – and yet we do it through social media.

We’d have thought it odd to entrust our bank accounts to our phones yet online banking has taken off. Many of us consent to being tracked on the internet by Google in exchange for free email and productivity apps.

When it comes down to the question of convenience versus privacy, recent history shows that we’re willing to trade pieces of ourselves for the benefits of big technology.

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