Alibaba's Boss Says Chinese Government Should Use Big Data Techniques On Its 'Citizen Scores' Surveillance Store
from the and-here's-a-cloud-computing-platform-I-prepared-earlier dept
A year ago, Techdirt wrote about China’s disturbing plan to create “citizen scores” that would rate everyone in the country on the basis of everything they do and say online. Although not much has been heard in the West about the scheme since then, that doesn’t mean that the plan has been dropped. As the Washington Post reports:
A high-level policy document released in September listed the sanctions that could be imposed on any person or company deemed to have fallen short. The overriding principle: “If trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere.”
A whole range of privileges would be denied, while people and companies breaking social trust would also be subject to expanded daily supervision and random inspections.
The ambition is to collect every scrap of information available online about China’s companies and citizens in a single place — and then assign each of them a score based on their political, commercial, social and legal “credit.”
The article notes that it is not clear how the Chinese authorities intend to carry out this massive task. Although that might raise the hope that it will prove too hard to implement, one person who doesn’t seem to share that view is Jack Ma, the founder and chairman of the Chinese Internet giant Alibaba. In a televised speech broadcast last week to 1.5 million security officials across China, Ma called for the government to apply big data’s analytical techniques in fighting crime. Bloomberg Technology quoted him as saying:
Bad guys in a movie are identifiable at first glance, but how can the ones in real life be found? In the age of big data, we need to remember that our legal and security system with millions of members will also face change.
He gave a concrete example of how big data techniques could be used in this context (original in Chinese). He said that there was nothing suspicious about somebody buying a pressure cooker or a clock, nor anything suspicious about someone buying ball bearings. But if somebody buys all of them together, you have a suspicious pattern. His suggestion that data mining techniques applied to everyday purchases might help the authorities to spot these patterns and to stop criminals before they act — a familiar enough idea — indicates that he is thinking of China’s plans to track every transaction from every shop as part of its “citizen scores” project.
Once that data is gathered, it would indeed be possible to start applying big data techniques as a matter of course in order to spot correlations — something already being used on Internet data by the NSA and GCHQ. But Ma’s suggestion is to go even further, and to analyze every digital breadcrumb people drop for possible significance when combined with more data points, whether their own or of others.
It’s a chilling vision of total surveillance subject to constant, open-ended analysis, but it is certainly not a theoretical one. Ma’s Alibaba group of companies includes Alibaba Cloud, which proudly proclaims its capabilities as follows:
China’s largest and most trusted cloud services provider and the world’s fourth largest website hosting provider.
Alibaba Cloud offers users the same cloud infrastructure that provides uninterrupted service to Alipay, an online payment service that can process a record-breaking 140,000 payments per second, and products that have broken records in anti-DDoS protection and database sorting.
That’s just the sort of scale nationwide big data operations would require. As Bloomberg Technology points out, Ma’s idea of applying some of that database sorting to catch the bad people is as much about money as morality:
Ma’s speech also highlights the delicate relationship between Chinese web companies and the government. The ruling party has designated internet industry leaders as key targets for outreach, with President Xi Jinping saying in May last year that technology leaders should “demonstrate positive energy in purifying cyberspace.”
Ma has said his policy for dealing with the government is to fall in love but not marry. His company has courted state clients, including the provincial governments of Zhejiang and Guizhou, for its cloud services.
Judging by his remarks to security officials, Ma seems happy to help with the cyber-purification — especially if it might bring him some very lucrative government business for Alibaba Cloud along the way.