China’s social credit system is planned to go active throughout that nation this year. It’s both a totalitarian dream and a civil libertarian nightmare.
Here, it is important to understand that “totalitarian” means a form of government in which everything is the concern of the state: where and how you live, your faith, how many children you have—even your thoughts. Nothing is off limits.
In the People’s Republic of China (PRC) where Xi Jinping has been made “People’s Leader” and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China for life, technology is the primary enabler of the new social credit system—a totalitarian tool of unimagined power. To be clear, the PRC’s social credit system has a sole purpose: keeping Xi and the Chinese Communist Party in power.
The new social credit system is likely to consist of a series of points added or subtracted from a citizen’s score. If your score gets near 1,300, you’ll have priority for college admissions, a good job, favorable loan conditions, and housing. If you end up closer to 600, you won’t be able to buy a ticket for high-speed rail or a plane, you’ll be denied a government job, and find it hard to get credit, or licenses, permits or social services.
Some of the credits that the social credit system is likely to employ include taking care of your elderly parents, committing a heroic act, and, of course, praising the People’s Leader. Demerits could include traffic offenses, practicing a religious faith, cheating in online games, and criticizing the Chinese Communist Party.
Two days ago, Tesla CEO Elon Musk was on hand in Shanghai to mark the first deliveries of the Chinese-manufactured Tesla Model 3 for China’s domestic market. Musk has big plans for the Chinese market (and, no doubt, China has big plans for Tesla—but more on that in a bit), expecting to ramp up to 500,000 vehicles annually.
Tesla, as with many new cars, is really a platform for sensors. These sensors can keep a car in its lane, apply the brakes to avoid an accident, report the car’s speed, and monitor parts for needed maintenance. When enabled with 5G cellular technology, AI-driven facial recognition, and the social credit system, a Tesla is now also a scout for the Chinese Communist Party. If a Tesla spots you jaywalking or reports the driver or other drivers speeding—an immediate social credit demerit can be meted out (unless you happen to be a member in good standing of the Chinese Communist Party, in which case, the violation will be archived for future leverage or Party purge justification).
Further, Tesla’s state-of-the-art advances will all soon be stolen by Chinese government-run state-owned enterprises backed with virtually unlimited government loans, allowing Musk’s competitors to largely skip the time and expense of R&D and move directly to undercutting Tesla’s market position. This will also have the effect of increasing the coverage and quality of China’s burgeoning surveillance network aimed at keeping the Chinese Communist Party in power.
Back in America, 5G-connected devices such as cellphones and vehicles won’t necessarily be conscripted into maintaining political power, but they can be used in ways unsettling to many Americans—or even as machines of war.
This week, some Samsung users learned that their devices come pre-loaded with spyware that reports some of the phone’s data to a Chinese security company that, as with all firms in China, works closely with the Chinese Communist Party. If that’s an issue for the consumer, then they likely have other choices they can make that may provide better security.
But Tesla, and other sensor-enabled vehicles, present a more troubling challenge. Should Musk’s foray into China survive its encounter with the nation’s infamous form of state-backed predatory capitalism, there is already talk of how its lower manufacturing costs could allow it to export Chinese-made Teslas into America. Such vehicles, especially in a 5G environment, could be turned into surveillance platforms or even weapons, with the car’s autonomous driving capability, linked with real time AI-enabled facial recognition, allowing operators in the PRC to commandeer the vehicle for use in attacks on high value targets. Such an offensive system might even be embedded as AI code in U.S.-based server farms, awaiting activation to wreak havoc.
This threat is far from speculative. Wisconsin Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher has warned that our government isn’t “taking cybersecurity as seriously as we should” with printers, Wi-Fi cameras, and laptops made in China and brought into the Pentagon and other sensitive agencies being compromised with back doors that give Beijing access to the machines.
Elected officials have been slow to address these threats. Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley has frequently raised the alarm about Big Tech’s resistance to reforms, noting, “There is no doubt that Big Tech has bought themselves an enormous amount of support in (D.C.), and on the Hill.”
In Texas, lawmakers addressed related concerns in 2013 and 2019 when they passed laws strengthening privacy protections from invasion by private drones and phasing out the use of red light cameras.
However, some states view privacy—at least from the government—differently. In California, it’s easy to see that the drive for new sources of revenue meshes seamlessly with the belief that government power should be used to nudge people in nanny state-approved ways. In the Golden State, vehicles prowling the road with cameras sensitive enough for facial recognition or that self-report violations to traffic authorities or miles driven to a tax agency, might be welcome. And, if the police unions balk at the further automation of their ticket-writing duties, they might be assuaged with a budget deal that assigns the revenue generated by new surveillance tools to their massive unfunded pension liabilities.
If our elected representatives don’t appreciate the new threats to our Fourth Amendment right to “be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” then technology itself may yet erect a wall of privacy in the form of blockchain that will at least allow individuals a reasonable expectation of privacy for their electronic records and transactions.
As for the potent union of 5G and autonomous vehicles, privacy and national security safeguards may require that the autonomous navigation systems are entirely independent of external control, preventing vehicles from being used as intelligence collection platforms or as weapons.
One thing is certain: 5G and follow on technologies’ enormous boon to our lives will be accompanied by dangers to our safety and liberty of which we can barely conceive. Some foresight and preparedness today may prevent disaster tomorrow.