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The shadow of social credit looms over Europe

It rules the lives of 1.4 billion Chinese people. It shapes the thoughts of 330 million Americans. In different forms, social credit is gaining ground at the heart of a European continent still attached to the protection of privacy and individual freedoms. For how long?

Richard Dalleau

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Bologna following in the footsteps of Beijing! In addition to its famous sauce, the Italian city will go down in history as one of the first cities to establish a social credit system a la China in the heart of the EU.

The Smart Digital Wallet principle, a Bolognese version of the Chinese population control system? Thanks to an app, local government will reward the “virtuous” behavior of its citizens. When they sort their waste, take public transport or save energy, they will receive points that they can exchange for discounts and free cultural activities. Deployed in the fall, the process is already being tested in Rome.

Aware that the similarity with the much decried Chinese social control system could deter people, Massimo Bugani, director of the city’s “digital calendar”, tried to defuse the situation, preferring the analogy with “point-based supermarket loyalty programs” and emphasizing the playful and voluntary nature of the system.

He probably did not realize these were precisely the arguments with which social credit began in China. One of the foundations of this Orwellian project is none other than Alipay Wallet, an app by Sesame Credit, a subsidiary of the online sales giant Alibaba. When it was set up in 2014, the goal was to implement an American-style “credit score” system in China. Upon conducting online transactions (that were closely monitored), the user collected points giving him access to advantages, including banking ones: he would himself set up an assessment of his borrowing capacities, in a “playful” way. Again, at the start, there was no obligation to use the system… until the application became unavoidable.

Mass surveillance and sanctions

Since 2020, Beijing has increasingly interlinked this system with social media, government and private services. A citizen’s score does not only include his banking score, but all his social interactions. Mass remote surveillance, coupled with facial recognition and GPS tracking, complete the plan. Beware if you jaywalk after criticizing the government on social media: you could be banned from booking train tickets, accessing your payment methods, or sending your child to certain schools.

During the pandemic, Beijing relied on its social control system to enforce strict lockdowns. In the same spirit, the vaccine mandates decreed in France to fight the pandemic constitute a first step towards a form of social credit, since they associate behavior that is deemed “virtuous” by the government (vaccination) with a reward, i.e. the freedom to move around and enjoy social spaces (restaurants, bars, theaters etc.).

To be sure, the Bolognese Smart Citizen Wallet is a far cry from all this, but the slope is all the more slippery that it rests on the blurry concept of “virtue”, namely compliance with social norms and not simply laws. While no one would disagree with sorting waste, what would happen if it became socially “virtuous” to report neighbors who do not, or those who use their SUVs to go shopping?

Changing behaviors

To put it more simply, will those reluctant to use the app be subject to social pressure? In the near future, will one have to display political opinions deemed “virtuous” by the authorities to maintain his or her score? This is not a certainty, but neither is it implausible.

Technology as a vector for good, and bad. Thus, digital identity projects emerging on an international and European level with the Digital Identity Wallet are full of promise: simplifying administrative, banking or commercial formalities, securing one’s digital identity, monitoring one’s personal data. On April 26 last, the French Official Journal published a decree establishing a digital ID card on smartphones, coupled with the biometric ID card. It will allow users to show proof of age, address etc., and authenticate themselves on many public and private websites.

The European project goes further, since it provides for the eventual integration of health and banking data, driver’s licenses and even means of payment into this digital wallet.

To observe such a system in action, one need only go to Ukraine. Before the war, the country claimed to be at the tip of the digital spear, and proved it: the digital passport is a reality there.

Europe: Ukraine at the tip of the spear

Better yet, the DiiA application centralizes all of the bearer’s papers, from their ID card to vehicle registration document and their child’s birth certificate, while also serving as an online public services counter for paying fines, taxes, creating one’s business… Attractive? Certainly. The app even gives access to government aid for war victims… provided they are up to date with their vaccinations.

And this is where the threat lies: if an unvaccinated war victim is considered less of a victim than a vaccinated one, the government could just as well impose other criteria. Political opponents, for example, could be described as pro-Russian and have their application deactivated.

Blocking a user because of his or her political opinions? No need to go to a country at war to see such behavior, as it is an aspect of American-style social credit. The massive use of social networks in social interactions, but also as a means of identification for third-party services, indeed gives them exorbitant power: that of depriving you of most of your social life – online and off – if you do not comply with their oppressive terms of use.

Thus, mentioning a scientific study (no matter how thorough) that goes against government or WHO recommendations in regard to Covid, can get you banned.

The same goes if your remarks are deemed “offensive” by Twitter or Facebook moderators… or by users who report you to them. And since some woke activists are very thin-skinned, this poses a real challenge to freedom of expression in this advanced democracy.

“Hacking” the human brain

This was evidenced by the uproar in some parts of American public opinion at the announcement of billionaire Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. The boss of Tesla indeed announced that he wanted to restore greater freedom of expression on the microblogging network, while his detractors claimed that, on the contrary, the app needed more “moderation”, in fact, censorship.

Beyond these controversies, the mass collection of personal data and the algorithms of these platforms lead to shaping the way in which Internet users grasp the world. Indeed, social networks hide some content, while putting other content forward, according to what they deem is good for you in view of your digital activity.

For Edward Snowmen, the goal is clear: “to attract attention and modify behavior”. The whistleblower who revealed the NSA’s global espionage considered in 2019 that Big Tech and the American government had thus deployed “the most effective means of social control in the history of our species”.

However, these means are only in their infancy, according to Yuval Noah Harari. The historian and best-selling author (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow), acclaimed in Davos, warns us. Noting the coming together of biotechnology and IT, he believes that in the near future, tech giants will be able to collect enough personal data to “hack” the human brain. Simply put, the machine will know you better than you know yourself and will be able to make major decisions for you: an “existential challenge for humanity”.

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