Location-Based Debt Shaming

Chinese Mobile App Puts Deadbeats on Radar

The Chinese have already embraced a whole range of private and government systems that gather, aggregate and distribute records of digital and offline behaviour. But a new initiative takes things further, and can be considered either a deterrent of bad financial behaviour or quite simply, creepy.

In December 2018, we described how Chinese authorities are implementing the extensive use of facial recognition for security purposes (see Smart City or Surveillance Hell). Advanced biometric tools are being used to identify all individuals, comparing their facial characteristics against a database of hundreds of millions of digital images. It’s invasive, but it can be argued that this is an unavoidable wave of the future.

The government is now taking surveillance to what some might call another extreme. China is gearing up to launch a social credit system in 2020, designed to give all citizens an identity number that will be linked to a permanent record. This will include various activities, from paying off loans to behaviour on public transport, and will work in a similar way to the credit score that’s assigned to individuals in western societies. Although a common social credit system for the entire country isn’t available, different cities and provinces have their own versions, and these are expected to come together in one big database to keep track of everyone.

In the northern province of Hebei, the local court system recently launched a location-based mobile app that shows the whereabouts and identity of anyone within 500 metres who has landed on a creditworthiness blacklist. People can access the app through the popular WeChat messaging platform. If they get within 500 metres of someone who’s in debt, the app will flash a warning.

The app creates what’s essentially a map of “deadbeat debtors”, according to Chinese state media, showing a debtor’s exact location — it’s unclear if this will display names or photos. Those who have earned a bad credit score through the new system could find themselves facing unpleasant consequences, including the shaming from being exposed by this new map.

The social credit scoring is already having an impact on life in China. According to China Daily, more than 6,000 people who failed to pay their taxes on time or misbehaved on public transport were barred from taking planes or trains in and out of China between June 2018 and January 2019. The new system is affecting people in other ways as well. For example, it will assign a negative score if citizens reportedly play an excessive amount of video games or post fake news online. Other potential punishments for bad credit includes slower Internet speeds, reduced access to good schools and bans from certain jobs. However, people can also earn “credit points” by performing volunteer work and donating blood.

China’s economic growth has outpaced its ability to create and police institutions that promote trust between citizens and businesses, helping create a general mood of suspicion. Although the country’s new credit system and app-based shaming might be labelled draconian measures, they can also be viewed as ways to deal with some of the ills of embracing a “consumption-based” economy.