The Ethics of Big Data: China’s Social Credit System


During the last 10 years, we have introduced smartphones, Smart TVs and many other gadgets in our routine in a way it feels unnatural not to interact with at least one of them. At the same time, social media (mostly Facebook and Instagram), online shopping and privacy policies have increased their presence in our daily lives. These two phenomena have originated, among many other things, a massive amount of data about every single netizen in the world.

The Big Data vault that companies and governments own right now tells a lot about us, in the same way that a naked picture could do. This is why many users wonder what it is that companies do (or may eventually do) with all that information, even with laws such as the GDPR. “Will my fitness tracker company share my activity data with my employer or my health insurance?” “Does the government keep track of my movements from all those cameras around the city?” The ethics of the use of Big Data are to be discussed for users to feel comfortable with their existence and companies to innovate and develop in a way that protects the users’ privacy. In this series, we will talk about different topics related to the limits of personal data use and its abuse.

China’s Social Credit System

In 2014, the Chinese government announced their project to introduce a social credit system in the country, a way of awarding and punishing citizens for their actions. The system, that is expected to be fully introduced in 2020, will constitute a huge surveillance network for over a billion people. In theory, this project aiming to “raise awareness for integrities and the level of credibility within society” will allow “trustworthy citizens” to enjoy a better lifestyle.

In order to do this, a myriad of different information is collected and crossed to find out how good of a citizen one is: financial credit, how often one plays videogames, returning books to the library or paying bills in time, helping someone out, crossing the street the right way… Exactly how much data does the system take, or where does it come from is however unknown. Will citizens that use cars often get penalties over those who ride a bike or walk? Will imported goods impact someone’s score? As almost every action, from getting a SIM card to verifying social media accounts, requires proof of identity, the social credit system can use that, facial recognition and artificial intelligence to assess and assign every citizen a score, then rank them. The way points are awarded or subtracted from someone’s score is, however, somewhat arbitrary and more related to keeping obedience towards the government rather than acting in a way that benefits society as a whole.

Should the government, any government, have such sensible data and use it to reward or, more likely, to punish its citizens? Should it be shared with private companies, employers and, potentially, other countries? The judicial system is designed to tackle crime and punish those who break laws, but this kind of arrangement sets arbitrary rules and allows for a changeability that is dangerous to both individual freedom and the concepts of democracy and the separation of powers.