Social Credit and Tech in Xi’s Second Term (Updated)

As Xi Jinping begins his second term with apparently peerless personal power, The Wall Street Journal’s Li Yuan identifies a number of trends likely to characterize the development of China’s technology policy and industry, and the relationship between them, over the next five years. These include further consolidation of the “Great Firewall”; continued boom times within it; increased cooperation between tech firms, particularly the biggest, and the state; and soaring spending on research and development.

Chinese internet companies collect a gold mine of personal data. Some industry executives say that trove, combined with low public concerns about privacy, are propelling China’s development of artificial intelligence past the rest of the world. The government wants to mine that data too, to enhance its management of the large, buoyant society, but it lacks the expertise big tech firms have.

Cooperation is already under way on facial recognition. China leads the world in deploying the technology. Those companies are working with police and other government agencies to identify lawbreakers and to build systems that include information on unpaid fines, online comments and other behavior to track a person’s “social credit.”

[…] Alibaba this month announced it would nearly triple R&D spending to more than $15 billion over the next three years. Data analytics, quantum computing and machine learning are among the targeted fields.

Such splurges dovetail nicely with Mr. Xi’s goal to develop indigenous cutting-edge technologies for national security. In his 2016 speech, he likened relying on foreign technology to “building a house on other people’s foundation. No matter how big or beautiful it is, it’s not going to last long.” [Source]

The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Samm Sacks explored the Congress’ implications for technology policy in a Q&A on Thursday:

Bolstering the digital economy and the ICT industry overall is central to Xi Jinping Thought. He made this clear in his April speech at the Work Conference on Cybersecurity and Informatization. Xi is directly shaping these strategies and policies as the chair of the Leading Small Group (LSG) for Cybersecurity and Informatization. With the creation of this institution and its functional office, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), Xi centralized decisionmaking over cyber policy, leading to the rapid build-out of a new governance framework for cyberspace, with the cybersecurity law as the centerpiece. Consolidation of Xi’s power will further accelerate implementation of these efforts. Up next could be completion of unfinished draft measures like those for securing critical information infrastructure.

[…] President Xi delivered a speech at the start of the Congress that signaled the party’s policy priorities for the next five years and assessed the leadership’s work since the previous Congress in 2012. The Chinese leadership has a long history of referencing technology innovation in speeches and directives. Yet the language used to describe technology in this speech is striking, sending a strong signal that technology, particularly information technology (IT) sectors, are a core part of Xi’s vision for his second term. It is the first time that an opening speech identifies specific terms such as artificial intelligence (AI) and digital China as priorities in the country’s development plans. For example, the speech calls for accelerating the “deep integration of the Internet, big data, and artificial intelligence with the real economy.” It calls for building a “science and technology superpower, quality superpower, aerospace superpower, cyber superpower” and “intensifying cooperation in frontier areas such as digital economy, AI, nanotechnology, and quantum computing, and advancing the development of big data, cloud computing, and smart cities so as to turn them into a digital silk road of the 21st century.” [Source]

CDT has been tracking the development and deployment of the facial recognition and social credit systems Li mentioned, as well as the privacy and political implications of increasingly ubiquitous and interconnected surveillance. In February, CDT published a media directive ordering the deletion of an article from flagship state media site The Paper. The piece described voice recognition technology from the firm iFlytek used to combat phone scams in Anhui, reportedly cutting their numbers by 80%. In addition to the deletion order, the directive warned sites, “do not hype related technical content.”

This week, a report from Human Rights Watch also focused on the firm’s technology, which offers “artificial intelligence systems that can handle minority languages, including Tibetan and Uyghur,” and audio “‘keyword spotting’ for ‘public security’ and ‘national defense’ purposes.” HRW notes that much of the voiceprint data appears to be collected under legally ambiguous circumstances from groups such as migrants and Uyghur passport applicants as well as from criminal suspects. “It is unclear,” it adds, “to what extent iFlytek shares the personal information it collects for commercial purposes with the Ministry of Public Security.”

Authorities are collaborating with iFlytek, a Chinese company that produces 80 percent of all speech recognition technology in the country, to develop a pilot surveillance system that can automatically identify targeted voices in phone conversations. Human Rights Watch wrote to iFlytek on August 2, 2017, asking about its business relationship with the Ministry of Public Security, the description on its website of a mass automated voice recognition and monitoring system it has developed, and whether it has any human rights policies. iFlytek has not responded.

“The Chinese government has been collecting the voice patterns of tens of thousands of people with little transparency about the program or laws regulating who can be targeted or how that information is going to be used,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Authorities can easily misuse that data in a country with a long history of unchecked surveillance and retaliation against critics.”

[…] The collection of voice biometrics is part of the Chinese government’s drive to form a “multi-modal” biometric portrait of individuals and to gather ever more data about citizens. This voice biometric data is linked in police databases to the person’s identification number, which in turn can then be linked to a person’s other biometric and personal information on file, including their ethnicity, home address, and even their hotel records.

[…] Government reports in the media claim that Automatic Speaker Recognition forensics have been used to match voice patterns to solve cases involving telecommunications fraud, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and blackmail. According to these same reports, it will also be applied for counterterrorism and “stability maintenance” purposes – terms authorities sometimes use to justify the suppression of peaceful dissent. [Source]

Meanwhile, coverage of the social credit system has continued. It was the focus of an excerpt from Rachel Botsman’s “Who Can You Trust?: How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart” that was published by Wired last weekend. Botsman highlights the still nascent system, currently a group of separate corporate pilots ahead of eventual nationalization, as another “marriage between communist oversight and capitalist can-do.”

Imagine a world where many of your daily activities were constantly monitored and evaluated: what you buy at the shops and online; where you are at any given time; who your friends are and how you interact with them; how many hours you spend watching content or playing video games; and what bills and taxes you pay (or not). It’s not hard to picture, because most of that already happens, thanks to all those data-collecting behemoths like Google, Facebook and Instagram or health-tracking apps such as Fitbit. But now imagine a system where all these behaviours are rated as either positive or negative and distilled into a single number, according to rules set by the government. That would create your Citizen Score and it would tell everyone whether or not you were trustworthy. Plus, your rating would be publicly ranked against that of the entire population and used to determine your eligibility for a mortgage or a job, where your children can go to school – or even just your chances of getting a date.

[…] “It is very ambitious in both depth and scope, including scrutinising individual behaviour and what books people are reading. It’s Amazon’s consumer tracking with an Orwellian political twist,” is how Johan Lagerkvist, a Chinese internet specialist at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, described the social credit system. Rogier Creemers, a post-doctoral scholar specialising in Chinese law and governance at the Van Vollenhoven Institute at Leiden University, who published a comprehensive translation of the plan, compared it to “Yelp reviews with the nanny state watching over your shoulder”. [Creemers later comments that “I think the best way to understand the system is as a sort of bastard love child of a loyalty scheme.”]

For now, technically, participating in China’s Citizen Scores is voluntary. But by 2020 it will be mandatory. The behaviour of every single citizen and legal person (which includes every company or other entity)in China will be rated and ranked, whether they like it or not. [Source]

China Law Translates Jeremy Daum has lamented that “many outside of China seem to view the story as uniquely Chinese — social credit as a wacky dystopian daydream from a faraway land.” Botsman similarly warns that “we’re getting closer to the Chinese system – the expansion of credit scoring into life scoring – even if we don’t know we are.” The system hit a Western public awareness landmark this week with an appearance in The Onion’s long-running satirical vox pop feature, in which “small claims bailiff” “Ken McSherry” commented that “I’m glad I live in a free country that’s still at least three or four years away from doing this exact same thing.” Human Rights Watch’s communications director Nicholas Dawes highlighted this danger on Twitter alongside the voice recognition report and several of the organization’s related publications:

Updated at 12:43 PDT on Oct 27, 2017: Zeynep Tufekci, whom Dawes cites, examines these issues in a newly published TED talk focused on the U.S. and Facebook but also including China, Alibaba, and Tencent:

Here’s the tragedy: we’re building this infrastructure of surveillance authoritarianism merely to get people to click on ads. And this won’t be Orwell’s authoritarianism. This isn’t “1984.” Now, if authoritarianism is using overt fear to terrorize us, we’ll all be scared, but we’ll know it, we’ll hate it and we’ll resist it. But if the people in power are using these algorithms to quietly watch us, to judge us and to nudge us, to predict and identify the troublemakers and the rebels, to deploy persuasion architectures at scale and to manipulate individuals one by one using their personal, individual weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and if they’re doing it at scale through our private screens so that we don’t even know what our fellow citizens and neighbors are seeing, that authoritarianism will envelop us like a spider’s web and we may not even know we’re in it. [Source]

October 26, 2017 10:24 PM
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