When Big Data Meets Big Brother

​A dystopian future looms as China moves toward social scoring systems.


What happens when we can control an individual’s social standing at the tap of a thumbs up or down? What if, in order to thrive economically, socially and personally, your social interactions are monitored and scored in adherence with the country’s political agenda?

It is all very Black Mirror. The hyper-reality of the acclaimed episode ‘Nosedive’ is a futuristic sci-fi dystopian fantasy. But, social rating through apps is already well underway. Social scoring to some degree has been around years. With the social media explosion came likes, retweets, right swipes, regrams… all to satiate our self-worth through these approval ratings given by others.

Today we’re getting a glimpse into a dangerous future. The gamification of social apps is affecting the world outside of social media. For example, Uber, where your drivers rate you. This rating is available for all drivers to see before accepting your request and getting a low score is going to impact a future drivers’ decision to pick you up. And who would want a potentially troublesome 2.5 in their car? There’s also Klout, based on social media engagement, ranking your profile or page out of 100. This score is then utilized to reward businesses. Not to mention the very controversial Peeple.

But what happens when a social score denotes your chances of not only getting a taxi, or an award – but a mortgage, job, or a seat at a restaurant?

The most noteworthy social scoring system is Sesame Credit, an arm of e-commerce giants Alibaba. It uses a database of customer information to put together social credit scores that have real direct impact on their lives, like getting a mortgage or job. Whilst their statements on the matter have been vague, Sesame have made no secret that users’ purchase histories will be under scrutiny. Suggesting that someone who buys and plays video games would be deemed lazy and less responsible than someone purchasing nappies, who would be deemed responsible having had a child. What would your purchases say about you? Imagine a world where your new video game could cost you a premium on your car insurance. If Sesame, and others have their way – it’s not too far off.

Scary right? Well, we’re only at the tip of this glacial nightmare! Plans are that by 2020, all citizens will be mandatorily enrolled onto a database which collects data on them. For other social scoring apps out there, things like parking tickets, magazine subscriptions or late payments could affect scoring. Users’ social network profiles could too come under scrutiny, including information on sharing habits. Profiling whether you’re liking and sharing government approved articles or ones from state sponsored agencies. And if not, you guessed it – your score will suffer! An even more worrying attribute is that your score is also determined via the network of people you are friends with. Being friends with low scorers will ultimately bring yours down. But what happens to those shunned by others for having low scores? They are not yet penalized, but there has reportedly been talk of bringing in penalties and service limitations.

Imagine being rated for using bad language, not dressing or appearing how someone else likes, or any other mildly irritating behavior, creating a totally controlled, sanitized environment. Admittedly, queue jumpers are the worst, but does that mean I should be able to give them a low rating and affect their chance of one day buying a home?

The possible fallout of a social scoring system like this is huge and highlights a dark side to big data and social networking and how it can be used to control the population through the positive reinforcement of social scoring. We can only imagine a future like something from the pages of a dystopian sci-fi novel should these systems take effect.

Taking a look in the mirror, would your social score help, or hurt you?


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