new chinese app recruits citizens to spy on “deadbeat debtors”

In a move straight of a Dickensian cyberpunk novel, a Chinese app alerts citizens if someone in debt is within 500 meters, and encourages spying on their spending habits.

futuristic chinese city

Just two short years ago, China was mulling a credit rating system on steroids, tracking not only the spending habits and financial trustworthiness of its citizens, but their social behavior as well, tracking their every move through a constellation of apps sharing every intimate detail of their lives. Well, today that system isn’t just widely deployed, but changing Chinese lives like some sort of Black Mirror episode brought to life by people who either didn’t understand what the term “dystopian” means, or failing to see the dystopian part thanks to authoritarian blinders. Neither explanation would be surprising in a country ruled by a man who just made himself president for life and insists on being called Uncle Xi as he tightens his totalitarian grip every day.

And if you’re wondering what’s the worst that could happen, make a prediction about how that system could be abused and it’s come true. People have been denied the ability to travel, had their internet speeds downgraded, were publicly shamed on billboards, and now, if they’re in debt, those around them will be alerted to keep an eye on their spending habits. For now, this is a pilot program in Hebei province, but it’s been covered and promoted by official media outlets like the state-run China Daily, which seems like a pretty good sign that its deployment will be encouraged nationwide as soon as real world testing is complete.

how does this “deadbeat debtors” app work?

Should you find yourself within a 500 meter radius of an indebted person, the app will alert you and encourage you to report if they’re not behaving like heavily indebted people, whatever that means. In other words, if you owe enough money or owe it to the right people, instead of siccing a collection agency after you, the Chinese government will turn your entire city against you by giving you a virtual scarlet letter you can’t escape. How much money you have to owe and to whom to get on this app’s bad side is unclear, nor if any mitigating circumstances are taken into account before they’re labeled as deadbeats.

While there are conflicting reports about exactly how much of the debtors’ personal data will be available to the app’s users, the China Daily says in no uncertain terms that there will be enough to pinpoint them. Certainly there are social conservatives in the United States who’d be thrilled to try out the same idea, but just consider how brutal this invasion of privacy is and how easily it could be gamed and exploited to make trouble for enemies of the state. This is less of an app and more of a weapon, one that China is happy to export worldwide in parts and pieces as it helps authoritarians around the world turn our digital lives into ready to use kompromat under the guise of promoting “harmony and order.”

how will the chinese cope?

For the most part, we shouldn’t expect the Chinese to get upset about this app or the social credit system in general. Consider that for decades, they had very little information to go on when doing business and making loans so there’s a benefit in some sort of credit scoring system. But while the current social credit score system, however, went far beyond that and became a technological Big Brother with very little regard for how it would be received — one of the big benefits of running an authoritarian state, one supposes — its implementation did come with carrots as well as sticks, and those who tow the line are rewarded with premium placement on dating sites along with other convenient perks and luxuries in their daily lives.

This is why we shouldn’t expect a revolt from the well-to-do Chinese about any of this while the poor and indebted are likely to go underground to get the money they need, which may steer them into either a gray peer-to-peer economy, or right into the hands of loan sharks and other criminals. At least those loan sharks aren’t likely to report them for indebtedness and turn them into social pariahs that send phones within roughly 800 square meters abuzz with nasty details as they try to go about their day. Meanwhile, those of us in the West should note this app as yet another warning for how badly the terabytes of data we collect on each other can be abused to help create a society that can only be described as Dickensian.

This article was featured on The Shift With Drex in a discussion on how governments can abuse and misuse our online artifacts. (Segment begins at the 17:54 mark.)

# tech // apps / big brother / china / mobile apps


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