Social Credit: post-pandemic scoring

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Following China’s lead no matter where it takes us

The pressure to move this pandemic forward is increasing. It’s understandable that people would be frustrated, and the longer they remain in isolation, without any sense of what happens next, the more their anxiety and stress builds.

Conspiracy theories are proliferating, protests are increasing, and patience is running thin. While nobody expects a miracle, the lack of leadership, the lack of clarity, the lack of a plan, is enough to ferment remarkable levels of frustration.

These photos from Denver, in which nurses sought to block anti-lockdown protests, seems to symbolically represent where we’re collectively at right now. Brave health care workers doing their best to stand up to the frustration rippling through the population. One could imagine the nurse in these photos asking people to be patient. Asking them to just hold up and chill, and give health professionals the time to get through this.

Impatience will neither end this pandemic, nor address the institutional dysfunction that enabled it. This is not a health crisis, but rather a political economic crisis created by neglect and greed, triggered by a pandemic we should have been prepared for. Addressing or recovering from this crisis will not be easy, and it will involve substantial social and institutional change, for better or for worse.

As a result there’s reason to be frustrated. Reason to be anxious. Reason to be concerned. We all want to move past this. We all want to see a light at the end of the tunnel, and have a sense of what it will take, or what we can do to make things better.

Unfortunately there are a lot of assumptions and faulty logic on the path to recovery.

For example, we need better testing, to properly understand where the virus is spreading, but as we discussed last week, the breakdown of the global supply chain means that the chemicals necessary for testing are in short supply. It may be months before we’re in a position to conduct wide spread testing.

Therefore the assumption that testing will be a near term option is unrealistic. It may be months before we fully understand the spread of the virus, and who has or has not been infected. Right now, what we test is what we get, and that testing does not (necessarily) paint an accurate picture.

Similarly after testing, people place hope in tracing, and the false belief that technology will magically provide a path out of this mess. Yet if you dig into the research, as we did this time last week, there’s ample reason to believe that technology or app based contact tracing will not work (in addition to being a privacy nightmare). For contact tracing to be effective, it has to be manual, performed by properly trained professionals, which in the US would involve hiring 300,000 new public health workers. Given the choice of a magic (yet ineffective) technology or hiring tons of people, you can guess which we’ll end up going with. Easier to erode privacy than it is to give people jobs.

Complicating this are stories of supply chain disaster and dysfunction. Like this recent anecdote from a chief physician executive from a hospital in Springfield Massachusetts, describing efforts to obtain PPE that sound more like a drug deal than hospital procurement. And of course as we also discussed last week, ongoing disruption to the food supply chain, that while seemingly nonsensical, reflect a brittle and centralized economy.

Not only is there no clear path out of this mess, but there’s reason to believe that the political economic crisis induced by the pandemic is only just beginning.

The thing about conspiracy theories, is that they arise when people are shrouded in uncertainty and enveloped in fear. Politics abhors a vacuum, and the lack of leadership, the lack of a credible plan, or an inspiring vision, is further eroding the legitimacy of leaders and institutions.

As testing, and contact tracing do not offer an easy fix, there will be a rush to find other (magical) systemic measures that could help navigate our collective way out of this.

In today’s issue, I want to both address a conspiracy theory I’m hearing raised more often, as well as a potential path out of this pandemic that I see as increasingly likely: a social credit system that creates a score that governs whether we can leave the house, where we can go, and whether we can travel.

The conspiracy version of this concept, comes in the form of an embedded chip, or a bar code tattoo, or some equivalent dystopian fantasy. I’ve heard a bunch of people bring this up, evoking the idea that we will have to submit to massive tracking and monitoring in order to reopen society. While they may be wrong about the details of the implementation, I don’t think they’re wrong about the concept.

For example we don’t need a tattoo, or an embedded, when our biometric information is enough to uniquely identify us. Facial recognition is one example of mature biometric technology that can be used to potentially track us wherever we go. Tracking who people are and where they go is tragically not new.

Rather they key piece of technology that such a tracking system requires is a score. Being able to create a variable, or number, that reflects a range of criteria, that could determine whether or not you are potentially infectious, vulnerable, obedient, or essential.

As part of our ongoing research into technology and democracy, Metaviews has been publishing a series on social credit systems, attempting to demystify, understand, and assess the role of such scoring regimes. We found that it was a recurring subject in our normal coverage, and wanted to dive deeper, hence the ongoing series, of which this is the fourth installment.

We have two main hypothesis for our social credit research. The first, is that social hierarchies and scores are a primary by-product of algorithms, which exist to sort and rank information (and hence people). The second, is that China is not exclusive in pursuing a social credit system, but rather these are already pervasive globally, China is just the most open about it.

The second issue in our social credit coverage looked at the necessity to game these systems, and featured a glimpse into how Airbnb employed such a system to discriminate against sex workers. (Also a reminder that sex workers are at the forefront of fighting intrusive and discriminatory surveillance systems).

Finally the third issue, our last before this one, looked at airline points systems now driven by facial recognition, and dug deeper into China’s social credit systems, plural, as there are dozens of them.

No surprise that most coverage of these social credit systems active in China are grossly inaccurate. They’re characterized as a single, centralized, social control system, when they actually have little resemblance to that. That’s not to say they couldn’t evolve that way given time, but they are not that at present.

Instead, a better way to conceive of China’s emerging systems, is as a data-sharing service, or a government based API. (An API, or application programming interface, is used by companies like Twitter or Facebook, to enable interaction and interoperability between different systems). China created this system largely to enable their various levels of government, and ministries, to be able to communicate and share data. They also modeled it after credit scores and systems active in the US and elsewhere.

The Chinese system also does not (yet) collect unified or harmonized data about individuals. The current focus of their social credit systems are on tracking the reputations and actions of companies. However individual companies and departments can create their own social credit systems (for individuals), and the framework is theoretically in place for these various systems to interact. Systems that you may have read or heard about that track individuals are not currently operated by the state, but by private companies. Just like Facebook, Twitter, or Google track individuals.

If you really want to dig more into this particular aspect, I recommend this fascinating podcast episode, that features the work of a social credit system researcher, who works for a company that charges foreign (to China) companies for insight on how they can game the social credit systems and prosper (or at least not get punished).

The danger of falsely believing that this is all the work of the state, is that we miss the reality that companies are already actively engaged in this kind of tracking and scoring. For the most part these companies are unregulated, without scrutiny, and there’s no way, at present, that we can effectively know the scope, scale, or the score we’ve been assigned.

I’d argue that this is the environment, or context, in which our current pandemic induced crisis has found itself. As a society we have the capacity for mass tracking and scoring, yet we do not have the necessary controls to prevent it from being abused, manipulated, or re-purposed.

How long will it take for someone to propose that the way out of this current stage of the pandemic is to create a scoring system that enables some of the population to reenter society and return to work?

Shit, I sure hope it’s not me in writing this issue. If I were to tell you not to think of an elephant would you think of an elephant? Are you thinking of one now?

That is part of why this series is important. If we regard social credit systems as a tool, than perhaps it is possible to implement this tool in a way that reflects our values and priorities? That is fair, does not discriminate, and achieves our desired social and political economic goals? I digress, but that is an ongoing subject for future issues in this series.

Instead I think we should be concerned, and vigilant, that a scoring or social credit system will emerge to potentially chart our way forward. We should be prepared for such a system, either to debate its merits, demand certain provisions or protections, or otherwise be prepared to game it and survive its imposition.

What could such a system look like? How could it work? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Both positive and negative. What kind of data should it include or exclude? What sort of access or power should it enable or deny?

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When I think of such a system, I envision an expansive one.

Since I am of the mind that contact tracing apps will not work, I can imagine a scoring system as being the logical response or next step. Therefore it might begin with location and social data that attempts to map out exposure and infection.

Yet it could also include additional weights or inputs into the scoring. For example whether an individual has observed social distancing. Whether they’ve traveled, not just internationally, but regionally and locally. How often they make grocery trips.

Or imagine it going further, and tapping into what news sources, information, or conspiracy theories they’re consuming. Is it possible to correlate consumption of conspiracy with willingness to practice voluntary self-isolation? Can you see the slippery slope enabled by correlative data? Especially if the crisis merits and the data is available.

Then you can add additional criteria to the scoring that reflects status and intent. Essential workers get an automatic bonus, but not all workers are equally essential, hence the opportunity for variations in those scores. A manufacturing worker might have their score bumped up when their company pivots to produce personal protective equipment, but their score might be reduced when a camera at the gas station detects that they’re not wearing a mask.

What if we conclude from this first phase of the pandemic that voluntary measures are not effective as not enough people voluntarily comply? A scoring system might be seen as the next logical step as it combines voluntary activity with punishment or infractions for failing to comply. For example, you can leave your house, but if you fail to respect social distance, wear a mask, or engage in risky activity, your overall score can suffer.

Such scores can and will also probably be used to ration scarce resources. This might be who is eligible for a COVID-19 test, when you can buy groceries, who has the privilege of boarding an airplane, or who can cross international borders. Right now, these are relatively restricted and somewhat arbitrary. Would it not be fair and wise to have a consistent criteria and mandated score to determine eligibility?

Or what about the issue of re-isolation and quarantine? We did a shitty job the first time around isolating people returning from spring break, vacations, and winter residences. When the outbreak reemerges (with a vengeance), and it will, how will we decide who has to be locked down and who can have the privilege to continue moving around? Should we once again lock everyone down, or will there be a system that can combine the need to isolate the infected and enable the rest to do their thing?

Then there’s also the issue of managing immunity. While preliminary research remains inconclusive, there’s reason to believe that even with a vaccine, immunity will not happen magically, and may be strain and time dependent. I imagine there will be a desire to monitor if not track who is immune and who is not.

We entered this pandemic as a data obsessed society, and I only see that obsession growing stronger. A scoring system is the current means of synthesizing and operationalizing that data in a way that a society can understand and act upon.

Tragically the accuracy of such a system is secondary to the symbolic role it plays, in giving order amidst chaos. It gives people a focus and an excuse to do things they probably want to do anyway, or at least a focus and an excuse to do things to other people that they probably want to do anyway.

Just look at the role of polls in politics. On the one hand the polling industry is arguably fraudulent due to their inability to obtain a random sample, yet on the other hand, polling drives our elections and governments. People who work in the business of politics acknowledge that polls are imperfect, but nonetheless regard the polling industry as a necessary evil, until something better comes along.

I’d argue that social credit systems and algorithmic driven scoring is the equivalent. Such systems will always be flawed, face questions of accuracy, bias, and discrimination, but until something better comes along, will be regarded as a necessary evil.

I’m not the first to articulate this argument, that social credit systems will be considered a necessary response to this crisis, as there’s been talk of this in blockchain circles for weeks. However this argument builds off the research we’ve already been engaged in, and will continue to share. It’s why if you’re not already a paying subscriber, I encourage you to join, and be part of this process. As always, if you can’t afford a subscription, let me know, and we can work something out.

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Let’s end this issue, by checking in with a researcher we follow closely, Ian Bogost, and his latest for The Atlantic. He speculates on the potential future of grocery shopping:

His article, as well as the tweet thread above is worth reading. I want to end on this as it provides a good case example of where social credit systems may emerge.

Many people collect points for shopping regularly at a grocery store. Those points could be absorbed into such a system. Both as a reward for compliance, but also as a currency that encourages further consolidation and concentration of ownership in the food industry.

A reminder that technology is never neutral, and how a scoring system is inevitably going to have winners and losers. I’m curious who you think those winners and losers will be?

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