from the with-great-power-comes-great-corruption dept
Back in 2015, Techdirt wrote about a government project in China that involves "citizen scores," a rating system that will serve as a measure of a person's political compliance. The authorities aim to do that by drawing on the huge range of personal data that we all generate in our daily use of the Internet. The data would be scooped up from various public and private services and fed into an algorithm to produce an overall citizen score that could be used to reward the obedient and punish the obstreperous. Naively, we might suppose that only authoritarian governments could ever obtain all that highly-revealing information, but an article from supchina.com reveals that is far from the case. It discusses some great journalism from Guangzhou's Southern Metropolis Daily, whose reporters documented their success in buying every kind of personal data about colleagues from "tracking" services advertised online:
For a modest fee of 700 yuan, or about 100 dollars, the reporters were able to obtain an astonishing array of information based on one colleague's personal ID number, including a full history of hotel rooms checked into, airline flights taken, internet cafes visited, border entries and exits, apartment rentals, real estate holdings -- even deposit records from the country's four major banks.
The article points out the inevitable conclusion from this journalistic investigation: officials within the government who have ready access to this personal information are happy to sell it to anyone for low prices, no questions asked. It's possible some of the databases have been hacked by outsiders, but it seems unlikely that online break-ins could make enough of them accessible, enough of the time. Corrupt officials with continuous access would be a more reliable source for these tracking services, of which there are hundreds. Supchina.com concludes:
But that wasn't all. The reporters were also able to purchase live location data on another colleague's mobile phone, pinpointing their position with disturbing accuracy.
We often imagine China as having the kind of centralized authoritarian system that might be capable of implementing a watertight and monolithic system of digital social controls. And certainly, in the digital age, there is merit in the idea that an expansive hold on big data may possess the key to political power. But as data becomes ever more precious, securing this resource could become virtually impossible -- particularly in a system like China's, which lacks adequate legal and political protections.
That's an important point that's often overlooked. As well as the immense power that mass surveillance confers on the authorities, it also creates a wonderful resource for corrupt officials to access and sell. It would be naive in the extreme to think that this is only a problem for China, and that it won't happen with the ever-widening surveillance systems that Western nations want to set up. It's yet another reason not to build them in the first place.