While EU countries are currently focused on complying with the General Data Protection Regulation, on the other side of the globe, in China, a completely different project is being tested: The Social Credit System. Whereas the EU is fighting for privacy and personal data protection, China has created a system which collects every citizen’s personal data, and then uses them to rank citizens in a way that affects almost every aspect of their lives.

How does this system work? Should the EU and other developed states adopt China’s position? Moreover, does such a system create a better society for everyone?

These questions will be answered in the following debate. We invite you to read it and decide for yourselves which side is the most persuasive and convincing. We hope that you will find it just as interesting as we did!

Adrian Lazarec

Adrian recently graduated from Babeș-Bolyai University, Faculty of Law. He is very passionate about the way national and international law is shaped by the fast advances of technology and aims to pursue a career as a lawyer.

Cătălin Pop

Cătălin recently graduated from Babeş-Bolyai University, Faculty of Law. His law studies in Cluj-Napoca, Krakow and Vienna made Cătălin develop a passion for new perspectives and concepts throughout his interest fields: criminal and international law.

Opening Statement - Adrian

First of all, and taking into consideration my role in this debate, I believe that the purpose of this opening statement should be to bring arguments for the implementation of a Social Credit System (SCS) in developed countries without delving too deep into the very specific aspects of such a system.

With that in mind, I believe it is important to present some of the principles that a SCS must follow before presenting its benefits. In that regard, any SCS should have three main characteristics: 

-respect for basic human rights; regardless of the way a citizen chooses to act he should not be stripped of these rights, 

-transparency; citizens should be aware of the reasons why they have received or lost social credit, -individual effect; an action of a citizen must only affect that citizen.

I will proceed with the main argument for introducing such a system; an argument which is based on the concept of social engineering. 

Even without openly admitting it, states have always attempted to influence the behaviour of their citizens. We see that the state already has in place mechanisms through which it deters citizens from taking certain actions, regulating the general behaviour of society. For some actions, citizens might be sanctioned in a criminal court, while others may lead to a civil dispute. While we can agree that a felony like loitering, or a minor traffic offence does not have a significant impact on society as a whole, allowing such behaviours to perpetuate has a large-scale effect on it. Usually, these types of individual actions are too minor to have any consequences other than monetary sanctions, which in themselves are a very weak deterrent for some people.

With this mind, we will see that the implementation of a SCS, which treats citizens in accordance with the respect they have for the society they live in, might prove to be one of the best deterrents for illegal behaviour, because through this system we can restrict, at least for a limited period of time, the power money has over certain things. Of course, citizens with a low score will, for example, still have access to public means of transportation but not to the fastest ones, they will still be able to book hotels, but will probably have to pay a higher deposit etc. At the same time, citizens that abide by society's rules will be rewarded with certain privileges like smaller fees for state performed services, better bank credit rates etc. This in turn will create the incentive for every individual to act in accordance with the law, discouraging them from committing even minor offences. Even if this shift in attitude might seem insincere at first (because an individual only acts in accordance with the law, because of their fear of having a low score), in time, such conduct will be embraced by everybody and will be seen as the natural thing to do regardless of the existence of a punishment.

Finally, introducing a SCS in a developed country which already has strong values and principles, as the motion suggests, will only serve as an incentive to improve the behaviour of its citizens and accelerate its growth. Furthermore, if all developed countries were to adopt such a system, we could foresee a world in which certain procedures that require the cooperation of two or more states, such as customs control, would be much easier for citizens with a high credit score, since a state would be able to vouch for those citizens. At the same time, citizens with a low credit score would have an extra incentive for changing their behaviour, because they would realise that their actions may have implications that extend beyond the border of their own country.

 

 

Opening Statement - Cătălin

Keeping in mind the idea of saying a lot in a few words, I will limit myself to arguing contrary to the question through developing the most eye-catching flaws that deem the implementation of a Social Credit System (SCS) undesirable. My argumentation will be developed on the assumption that the SCS shall be based on government data, regarding the economic activities and social status of citizens, being more or less a national reputational system.

A. The negative implications of a SCS in a developed state can be visualized from three perspectives based on the relationships that develop between the holder of the system (the state) and its users (citizens), according to the purpose the system is used for: 1. state – user; 2. users – users; 3. users – state.

1. State - User

The first negative consequence for a state that would choose to use the SCS model is that important information about an individual would be gathered in a single database to which only the state would have access: information regarding professional conduct, correctness, corruption, tax evasion, academic cheating, professionalism, probity and even social media activity would be compiled in a system of algorithms and rankings. Subsequently, users would be rated based on the various aspects and the nature of the data gathered. One should ask himself: isn’t it naturally human for one to repel the idea of another – the state in this instance – knowing everything about himself? After all, the SCS, in short, means surveillance on the highest level, of all the citizens: the state knows almost everything about an individual.

Secondly, the system could eventually become a tool of social manipulation and political subjugation; both very undesirable ideas. As the holder of the system, the state could shape the behaviour of the users the way it desires, as citizens would behave accordingly to its directions in fear of losing points. Moreover, it is safe to assume that given the power the SCS grants, the holder would not want to lose its position. Therefore, a tool like the SCS under the government's control could increase the chances of introducing political affiliation as criterion of ranking and scoring: criticising the ruling party in social media, for example, could cost a user points in the SCS, indirectly stopping him from making any criticism and exercising his right to free speech.

2. User - User

The implementation of a SCS might have dire consequences on the relations between users, as users with a high score are expected to distance themselves from other low-scoring individuals to avoid any negative effects on their score, or even worse being penalised.

3. User - State

The SCS is in itself a human made system liable to flaws, as nothing is ever perfect. Most notably, such a system would be vulnerable to hacking; one bad-faith user hacking the system would have access to limitless information about all citizens, and thus, would have the power to create an outbreak of negative consequences.

B. Last but not least, the idea that the SCS should be adopted by all developed nations should be disregarded. Not only users are not all of good-faith to one another, but one should think about the fact that not even states themselves are always of good-faith to one another, as every one of them follows its own agenda. In a world where every state has a system with abundant information for all its citizens, it is only logical to expect that other states will attempt to hack into it for their own benefit. In a race for world dominance, isn’t it too risky if there exists a state A that knows everything about the citizens of state B? 

 

Adrian argues that the state does have a role in influencing the behaviour of its citizens, and needs an efficient tool to fulfil it. The biggest problem is that small acts of disobedience, while being punished individually and according to the law, still have a huge impact on society as a whole, thus, a SCS which rewards and punishes citizens depending on whether or not they abide by the rules is necessary. Cătălin, on the other hand, explains how this tool gives the state the power to manipulate individuals to act in certain ways, or, even worse, to stop them from criticising the governing party. Moreover, this system is also inclined to affect individual interactions, creating a social caste system, while it is highly likely that a SCS would be vulnerable to hacking attempts. 

Rebuttal - Adrian

We begin this rebuttal by noticing that, in countering this motion, various potential technical flaws or vulnerabilities have been brought up with regards to the SCS. As such, we have been presented with some scenarios that, while possible, are also preventable in a very efficient way, even more so in a developed state.

With this in mind, we will address one of the main counterarguments for the implementation of a SCS, namely the technical issues and vulnerability of such a system. It has been argued that collecting all the important information about all citizens in a single location may present a security flaw; a malicious user could try to hack that centralised information database. While this is true, digitalising public governance is a trend of the 21st century and thus, creating digital records for all citizens is unavoidable, regardless of the implementation of a SCS. States must increase the security of these databases (ex. by decentralising them), as they are inevitable, and not use their vulnerability as an argument against the SCS. 

Furthermore, we believe that the argument that this system is human-made and thus, liable to flaws is not very convincing, considering that we can say this about almost everything from politics, governance, the legal system etc. This is why, as humans, we must strive to improve what we create and one of the best ways to ensure that is by improving ourselves.

Regarding the relationships between citizens, we believe that the gap between individuals would not increase as a result of the SCS, considering that it would reward and penalise existing social behaviours that already separate citizens. Furthermore, given that the system rewards positive social conduct, we might even see this gap decrease as high-ranking citizens might be encouraged to help the ones with a poorer social credit. 

Another argument that was brought up, which we consider to be of great importance for the scope of this discussion, is that this system could become a tool of social manipulation and political subjugation. Regarding the social manipulation aspect, we will briefly readdress some points brought up in the opening statement. We believe in fact that the role of this SCS must be that of social manipulation, although the word ‘manipulation’ has a rather nefarious connotation. That being said, the state already influences people to act in a certain way by restricting some of their actions and encouraging others. As a result, the implementation of a SCS would simply be a reaffirmation of a policy states have already adopted.

Regarding political subjugation as a consequence of this system, we believe that given its importance, the SCS will be treated with utmost precaution and, like any tool susceptible of abuse, safeguards would be implemented to protect citizens from its abuse. Such safeguards might take the form of a constitutional provision which would detail which rights can be affected by this system or what is forbidden regarding this system. Even though we might have these safeguards in place, it is not uncommon for some states to abuse the power given to them by the citizens and we are aware that such a system may be abused as well. This is why we believe that this system should be applied only in developed countries, as the motion suggests, thus, countries that have a strong tradition of respecting democratic values, given that this system affects every citizen in a very personal way.

 

 

Rebuttal - Cătălin

Only after data and information has been collected and transformed into social credit score, it is possible to undertake social manipulation by deciding how the user might receive rewards or punishments. Even though influencing the role of citizens is a phenomenon that has indeed always taken place, this rebuttal will build on the counterargument that the way states would engineer society through the SCS could be very dangerous, exactly because of its very efficient deterrent effect which lies in the punishment and reward principle, as stated in the opposing opening statement. 

This is mainly because the SCS is in its core a Panopticon. According to Jeremy Bentham, the Panopticon is an annular building with a central tower in the inner ring and with separated (prison) cells at the periphery. From the tower, the supervisors (the state) can have full oversight of every cell (every citizen). On the other hand, from his cell the prisoner/citizen cannot see if he is being constantly watched, and thus he has to assume that this is always the case. In the practical case of the SCS, the citizen does not even have to assume; he actually knows that he is always being watched. This makes visibility a trap; the prisoner starts 'watching' himself, regulating his behaviour, and as a consequence he creates an inner incentive to act in accordance with the law on every level, being discouraged from committing even the most minor of offences, as argued in the opposite statement. Moreover, the concrete punishments and rewards create a special type of awareness; fear of the punishments and awards, fear (of having low scores) which will consequently create a very efficient manipulation effect in the short term.

Besides the constant fear (which might induce an individual to rebel), the truth is that the Panopticon may work in unforeseen ways in the long run, and so may the SCS. The constant surveillance and awareness of the punishments and awards will clearly influence citizens' behaviour, but it is not clear if artificially created obedience through the SCS will shave the desirable effects. Although the Panopticon/SCS could initially create docile citizens, citizens will find themselves constrained at any step, watched at every move, manipulated and controlled in their everyday life. 

Societies resist enforced discipline by their social engineers. Take for example a maximum-security prison: it has intensive surveillance of the inmates, although not a Panopticon prison per se, and yet prisoners still self-mutilate, provoke riots or develop sub-cultures and challenge authority. The perfection of the system actually calls forth its opposite: self-cutting prisoners react against the principle of negative visibility that originally was intended to produce compliance, by making themselves more visible. On the other hand, those who obey and comply with the rules, often take it to extremes, mindlessly and hypocritically seeking a high score, regardless of the means necessary to achieve it. Surveillance in the private sphere adds unpredictability and destroys the necessary quantum of trust needed to achieve basic levels of solidarity and sociality, which means that the SCS, through intrusive surveillance, may destroy what it attempts to create: integrity and trust.

How humans are affected by intrusive surveillance and rating of their behaviour, as well as how human conduct is affected when reduced to a score, low or high, are two criminology questions that remain unanswered, and trying to answer them is far too risky at this point.

 

 

      

 

At this point, Adrian points out that the digitalisation of public governance is inevitable in today’s world, thus any technical flaws that might appear while implementing the SCS will not represent something uncommon or impossible to deal with for developed countries. In fact, the system will benefit people because it will provide an incentive for everyone to act better and help each other, this being the “manipulation” that the state is going to enforce through this system. Even though it can be used for political subjugation, this danger is much less significant in developed countries, where human rights and democratic values are respected. Cătălin, on the contrary, points out that citizens will live having a constant fear of being punished for their actions, a fear that makes people vulnerable, and, therefore, easier to manipulate. Moreover, we cannot predict how people will react to this system on the long term, since fear always induces individuals to rebel. Surveillance in the private sphere leads to the erosion of integrity and trust.

We hope this debate was a pleasure to read, and the conclusions will help you form an opinion on your own!

 

Conclusions - Adrian

Considering all the arguments that were brought in this debate, I hold my belief that a SCS can be beneficial, if introduced in a developed country. Introducing a system that rewards or sanctions citizens based on their actions in a state with an already solid set of social conducts can only serve to accelerate its development through the improvement of its citizens’ behaviour.

While some rather solid counter-arguments as to why such a system would not function, or would prove detrimental to the state and its citizens have been brought into this discussion, they have been disproved. That is because any shortcomings the SCS might present have viable solutions, especially if we treat every potential unpleasant outcome with utmost concern.

This is why I believe that, all things considered, developed states shouldn’t shy away from implementing a social security system. Of course, such a shift in the way states govern and influence social behaviour must be implemented, only after a thorough analysis of each state's particularities, and after the adoption of all necessary precautions, because the benefits of such a system far outweigh the risks.

 

Conclusions - Cătălin

While considering establishing a SCS in the developed countries, one should always keep in mind the following: 

(1) mass-surveillance is not something citizens can easily accept;

(2) political subjugation is a phenomenon that could always occur among the desires of the power holders;

(3) individual relationships may be affected negatively by the SCS;

(4) the programming errors or loopholes that a computerised system, such as the SCS, is prone to have, which make it far too risky for the SCS to even be developed, especially if we take into consideration the will for disorder, by means of hacking, that people are capable of.

Even if somehow we do not find the mass surveillance the SCS involves disturbing, and even if we find ways to protect citizens from the risk of political subjugation, or to ensure that citizens won’t endanger their relationships, and even if we can make the system flawless and eliminate all chances of human error, what one should keep in mind and learn from this debate is that the SCS might influence human behaviour in unforeseen or undesired ways, a risk that we should not be willing to take even in developed countries.

 

 

By Adina Ionescu

Disclaimer: The arguments presented in this debate do not represent the opinions of the two authors. 

This material was published in Lawyr.it Vol. 5 Ed. 3, September 2018, available only online.