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Power and data

November 28, 2018

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The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

EVERY single day and every single night, 200 million cameras keep an eye on China’s one billion-plus citizens. The cameras, some of which are equipped with facial recognition software, have been around for a while; but now, at least in Beijing, they will be put to a new use. The Chinese authorities are launching a ‘social credit’ system that will aggregate data from various computer systems and other technologies used by citizens to ‘rate’ each and every one of them.

Those with good social credit ratings will get perks such as preferred access in applying for jobs and accessing other government services. Those with bad social credit ratings, the people who do not obey traffic laws and any other of the many rules via which the Chinese state regulates its citizens, will see negative consequences.

The latest news from Beijing, which is the second city after Huangzhao to be implementing the ‘social credit’ programme, is that millions of people in the city have been prevented from booking train and plane tickets. One of the consequences of poor social credit, which is now an indicator for being a poor citizen — not having concern for one’s fellow citizens and not properly obeying the writ of the state — is that services like trains and planes will not be available.

Mass surveillance, particularly that which utilises big data to eliminate all forms of privacy and individual choice, has long been prophesied by authors such as George Orwell.

Then there is the public shaming or praising angle. According to a report aired on BBC, the new system will mean that the best citizens, the ones who always follow government directives, volunteer and obey the letter of the law as closely as possible, will have their names displayed prominently in their villages and towns.

Once the Beijing system, which is more comprehensive than the one in Huangzhou, is implemented, it is expected that the blacklisted people, those with poor social credit, will hardly be able to do anything, their ability to access services and transactions imp­a­cted by the data collected from cameras, transport systems, financial systems and many other sources.

Nor are the Chinese expected to express any public dissent or dissatisfaction with the plan; the Chinese are used to their government gathering data on every aspect of their lives. In this latest iteration, the data that once used to be tidbits of information is now ‘big data’, aggregated from many different sources which can provide a comprehensive snapshot of their lives.

The news of the Beijing social credit plan was met with alarm in most Western countries. Mass surveillance, particularly this new form that utilises big data to eliminate all forms of privacy and eventually individual choice, has long been prophesied by authors such as George Orwell, and now it seems to have been realised. There is little hint as to where the surveillance will end or whether the old, the poor or the weak, who are not as able to contribute, will eventually be adversely impacted. When everything, from genetics to human habits can be known, what, indeed, will there be to stop the government from treating citizens not as individuals but as units of profit or loss?

The Chinese do not seem afraid. The premise in China is that if you have nothing to hide and if you are, indeed, doing everything right, then the government, which is looked upon as a benevolent force that takes care of its people, will never do anything to harm you. Already most opportunities and resources are distributed based on similar competitive systems; all Chinese students must sit for an intensely competitive high-school exam when they reach the age of 17. Their scores on this exam determine their fate in terms of the subjects that they will study, the universities that they will attend and the jobs that they will ultimately get. Even though rural students do not perform as well as urban students, everyone in China seems to buy the myth that the government-administered test is a meritocracy that provides every individual the same chance of success.

With Pakistan’s relationship with China getting deeper and more intertwined every day, it is interesting to consider how this development would affect Pakistanis. Pakistanis, too, pretend to be the sort of people who have nothing at all to hide, always relying on the fact that no one will ever know what it is that they are hiding.

The feeling here is that nobody knows or will know the truth, but this premise could be seriously upended if there was an empirical basis of knowing what everyone does all the time. Many and most will likely be exposed for lies and the exposure could end lives and careers. What China is doing in China could destroy Pakistan’s delicate and questionable moral equilibrium, were it to take place in Pakistan.

While it may be entertaining to consider which of one’s relatives would be exposed by the import of this sort of technology to Pakistan, it is not to say that such surveillance is a good thing. As the world and everyone in it gets increasingly more dependent on technology, it is necessary to consider where the data goes and who has ownership of it. Recent exposures of social media platforms like Facebook have shown (and hopefully alerted) the public to not sharing personal data on social media and to think several times before sharing data such as personal photographs, birthdays, and names and addresses of family members.

The reason for caution is that data, once simply information, is now synonymous with power and money. Those who know you can bribe you, sell to you, monitor you, know what you will do and when you will do it. In China, the government has taken over the reins of data collection and control. One wonders who will do so in Pakistan.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmai.com

Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2018