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China’s proposed Social Credit system has attracted widespread attention. With plans to launch in 2020, but already in testing, the system promises to revolutionise the way in which data is used. Here we examine, on the eve of GDPR, whether a similar scheme could work in Europe.

With global oil stocks dwindling, some say that data is the new must-have commodity. We at Mapp believe that’s an oversimplified comparison – oil is a finite and use-once product whereas data is in infinite supply with limitless re-use possibilities – but the underlying message is clear; data in today’s global marketplace is an extremely valuable resource.

This fact hasn’t been missed by the European Union (EU) who, with their new information privacy law, GDPR, hands data ownership to the individual. Key features of GDPR include the right for people to access, rectify or delete personal data and businesses facing up to €20 million worth of fines for not adhering to new data breach protocols.

The new regulation reflects the democratic values of the EU’s 28 member states; personal data belongs to the individual and they have the right to do with it what they want.

How does that differ with the EU’s largest trade competitor - China?

By contrast, and broadly speaking, the Chinese government’s view is that public data should be controlled by them. An example of this is the forthcoming Social Credit system, which plans to track and rate the trustworthiness of individuals and businesses through the monitoring of social media and other online activity.

This algorithmic reputational ranking is scheduled for release in 2020 and will influence both personal and business lives; everything from participation on dating sites to loan applications. Social media posts will be scrutinized with those praising the government improving a citizen’s ‘score’, with the opposite also true. Trials have already been run and citizens with poor ratings have found themselves unqualified to purchase travel tickets and apply for bank loans. With 1.3bm Chinese citizens due to be assigned a trust rating in less than two years, the implications once the full programme is rolled out are massive.

It’s unlikely something could happen in Europe on a similarly grand scale. The EU’s political and legal landscape would make it very hard to produce a continental-wide digital ‘score’ for each citizen. That’s not to say that commercial algorithms which use data to categorise people and make life-changing decisions aren’t already a big part of European life. Schufa, a universal credit rating system used in Germany to assess the creditworthiness of its citizens has been criticized for its lack of transparency.

Information privacy organizations believe that we’re standing at a data crossroads. While GDPR hands the data keys back to the individual, concerns are growing as to how permissible data is used to algorithmically rank people.

“We live in a world where judgment is being replaced by numbers – by scores that calculate the value of a human being, with the help of algorithms,” says Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.[1]

“We are in a crucial phase in which we need to have a discussion about our values,” he warns.

China’s Social Credit system raises not political, technological or legal questions but ethical ones. European commentators, businesses and citizens alike will be keeping a close eye on how China treats the world’s newest and most valuable commodity.