Ben Longstaff

@ben_longstaff

“Deadbeat Debtors near me” China has a WeChat app with a map for that

Will privacy become a privilege?

The Higher People’s Court in the province of Hebei made an app. The app alerts you when people who fail to honour their credit obligations are within 500 yards. The app went live on Jan 14th 2019.

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My first question was WTF China?

Here’s the thing. No one is the villain in their own story so its worth trying to understand what they thing this will achieve. Somewhere in China a group of people thought that this was a good idea and signed off on it.

Why expose this data?

China has a debt problem. Merrill Lynch estimated that China had roughly $14 billion in bond defaults in 2018, nearly triple the number in 2017.

Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, the Supreme People’s Court, and the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC), told authorities to complete provincial-level online platforms by the end of this year and to make the public aware of these websites within two years. — Xinhua 2017–10–10

So representatives from the government, the courts and the banks think this is a good idea.

The court exposes the debtor’s information through the program. People are able to whistle blow on debtors that are buying non essential items. What sort of spending is worthy of being reported isn’t clear.

Presumably you increase your Good Citizen Score if your report on a debtor’s.

It is unclear what information is shared in the app that allows other citizens to report on the debtors. It has been suggested that this could include name, national id number and photos but I couldn’t find anything official to confirm.

“It’s a part of our measures to enforce our rulings and create a socially credible environment,” - a spokesman of the court.

How will it change things?

An unintended consequence could be making financially vulnerable people easy to find. This could be a powerful tool for those who prey on people in hard times. Maybe that is just a western problem, perhaps China’s Good Citizen Score will prevent that. Then again maybe it is an acceptable cost for the government.

In the short term it is hard to know how it will play out. Would the people around you treat you differently if they knew you where in debt?

Surfacing who is a default debtor to government employees is one thing. Making it available to the general public is another.

It does create a very strong incentive not to become a defaulted debtor. Perhaps in the longer term it will have a societal change where people rarely take on debt.

The purpose of the Good Citizen Score is to prioritise access to limited resources. More than 6,000 people have been banned from taking trains and planes due to action relating to their score. Fraud and counterfeiting are a problem in China. The Good Citizen Score is a tool to improve governance and market order.

China is trading privacy for efficiency.

This highlights how scaling is hard. Compare the difference in citizens’ rights between a country like China and Australia. China needs to provide stability and services for 1.4 billion people. Australia only needs to provide for 24.6 million people, that’s 1.8% of the size of China.

Don’t get me wrong. I am very glad that I am not subject to a good citizen score, well that I am aware of anyway. The point I want to make is that China has massive scaling issues when delivering services. There are economic trade offs that have to be made.

By creating strong incentives for citizens to follow the rules it has less edge cases to deal with.

Australia’s cashless debit card for welfare recipients received a public backlash. Concerns where raised about recipients feeling shame, stigma and humiliation. The card looks and operates like a regular bank card. Except it cannot be used to buy alcohol, gambling products, gift cards or to withdraw cash. The goal is to reduce the cash available areas with high levels of alcohol, gambling and drug abuse.

Quite a different experience.

Should people have the freedom to make their own mistakes? Should the government only provide the bare necessities?

These are hard questions to answer fairly when you have limited data and resources.

Has privacy become a luxury in China?

To enforce government values requires collecting data on everyone at scale. However that data is not accessible to everyone. Yet.

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“Megvii, supports the state’s nationwide surveillance program, which China, with troubling inferences, calls Skynet. Launched in 2005, Skynet aims to create a nationwide panopticon by blanketing the country with CCTV. Thanks to Face++, it now incorporates millions of A.I.-enhanced cameras that have been used to apprehend some 2,000 suspects since 2016” — source

China is using technology to watch over its citizens.

The logic of what is acceptable behaviour is a hard problem for an algorithm. Outsourcing that logic to the citizens is a stop gap measure until technology catches up.

As technology improves there will be better data available to the algorithms.

Is it a good thing?

Will the Good Citizen Score result in a better quality of life in 50 years time? I’m not sure, on the one hand it could reduce crime and anti social behaviour, on the other it could curb our liberties. It will likely come down to who sets what behaviours the algorithms should optimise for.

How much of your privacy are you willing to trade for safety?

Seems like a simple question but I find it hard to answer. With the right checks and balances it could be great. Without them dystopian. Time will tell if privacy becomes a privilege.

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