Friday, 2 June 2017

Citizen Score

by Dirk Helbing (ETH Zurich/TU Delft)

Chapter 3: Citizen Score 
of the forthcoming book THE GOLDEN AGE – How to Build a Better Digital Society

Previous chapter:CLICK Chapter 1
Previous chapter:CLICK Chapter 2 


If we extrapolate the growth of inequality in the world and consider the growth of debt over time, it is not so far-fetched to assume that, one day, the great majority of the wealth of the world would be in the hands of just a few people, or even just one person. Poverty is not just a problem of developing countries. We also have more than 45 million people living on food stamps in the USA.

Hence, one day, the exchange of goods based on buying and selling in a common, open market place would not work any longer. According to the OECD, the World Economic Forum, and the International Monetary Funds, the degree of inequality is strangling the economic development already now. You may wonder how people would buy goods and services in the future.

The following is a possible approach. Suppose all people had an electronic identity under which all sorts of data about people is being stored. Furthermore, assume that all people would be characterized by a number, which would determine its rank in society, based on criteria determined by those who govern the world. Let us call this number the Citizen Score. Than this score could be used to decide rights of access to a certain service or good. Assume that there are Mercedes cars for 20 million people in the world. Then, among all people interested in such a car, those people who have the highest ranks would get this car. The same thing would apply to anything else.

In such a system, money would not be needed anymore. Your reputation or name would by the good or service of your liking – if your rank is just high enough. You would just have to present the identity chip, a tiny little thing in your forehand, and that would be it! No money bills, no coins, no credit cards. You would just have to present your identity chip. This sounds quite comfortable – as long as you would be entitled to get the good or service you are up to. If you are not, then there would be no chance whatsoever to get access to this good or service. There would not be any money to buy it for you.

Currently, of course, many of us are enjoying a life that offers many of us more than we actually need. In our consumer societies, there is quite a bit of luxury, and the number of people who lack food or shelter seem to be relatively small in industrialized societies. However, this would not hold forever. If the Limit to Growth study, Global 2000, and other simulation studies about the world’s future in face of dwindling resources are right, we would soon run into all kinds of possible resource shortages. In fact, these models predict serious economic collapse for the very near future, and a drastic reduction of the world population from 2030 onwards.

In such a world, many of the resources that most people in industrialized societies are enjoying today would become a luxury, which would be restricted to a small societal elite. This could include the use of water and electricity, the availability of medicine, the availability of meat, the right to use a car, and many more things. In such a society, people would struggle to improve their Citizen Score to obtain slightly better living conditions. They would desperately try to fulfil the expectations of those who rule the world by determining the way the Citizen Score works.

Therefore, the Citizen Score is a governance system, not just a payment system. It would define a perfectly hierarchical system, in other words, a new kind of data-driven feudalism. If your Citizen Score is high enough, you will get “everything for free”. If it is low, you will have to be lucky to get certain products or services at all – even those that may be needed to survive. For example, if the number of available immunization shots in case of a global pandemic are small, your Citizen Score could easily decide over your life or death. The ethical issues of such a system have recently been discussed in the science fiction novel “iGod” by Willemijn Dicke.

The Citizen Score is also intended to decide about the jobs one could get and the countries one might visit. In other words, the Citizen Score system would influence all spheres of life. Particularly, when resources get short, the Citizen Score is a tool that can be used to reduce consumption by any amount needed or wanted. Such resource shortages could also be artificially introduced. For example, the world has recently faced surprising shortages of certain kinds of medicines, which were previously available in sufficient amounts. So, what kind of data would decide about your future fate?

Pretty much any kind of data. Your consumption habits. Your behaviour. Your interests and reading patterns. For example, if you read articles that are critical of government policies, this would generate minus points. If you would make negative comments on social media platforms, this would be even worse. So, any kind of public dissent would be punished. Your health conditions and whether you are doing something for your fitness would be considered as well. Furthermore, your eating habits might also be considered. Excess consumption of fat, sugar or meet might be negatively rated. Above all, it is not just your own behaviour that matters, but also the behaviour of your friends, family, neighbours or colleagues. So, if you meet people with a low Citizen Score, it would reduce your score as well.

If you think this dystopian nightmare could not happen to Western democracies, you must be warned. One of the revelations of Edward Snowden on mass surveillance concerned a similar system in Great Britain, called “Karma Police”. This system also considers the videos you watch on the Internet, and even the radio programs and songs you are listening to. Moreover, WikiLeaks’s recent Vault 7 revelations have shown that the CIA has been hacking basically all our electronic devices, from smartphones to smart TVs, and all services from Skype to WhatsApp.

It is also known that online newspapers report your reading habits to about 10 companies collecting data about you, and that all the links you have clicked in the past years are evaluated by more than 40 authorities in the United Kingdom, even if you deleted them. It would be highly naïve to assume that this data is just being used to determine criminals and terrorists. It is highly likely that the personal data collected about us – mostly without our knowledge – is being used to determine Citizen Scores, to produce digital doubles of use for the purpose of computer simulation, to target us for particular products and services, and to manipulate our attention, opinions, emotions, decisions and behaviours with personalized information (Big Nudging).

Besides mass surveillance, behavioural manipulation by Big Nudging, and Citizen Scores, there is a further tool that we need to get concerned about: predictive policing. What is currently being used to prevent or reduce terrorism, crime, and drug consumption, can be easily extended to minorities, intellectuals and dissidents. Suppose the government would plan to implement a new policy that people may not agree with. Then, it would be possible to determine likely opponents beforehand and to lock them away in order to avoid public resistance.

It is clear that all the measures taken together are perfect tools to run an autocratic or even totalitarian society. Once they exist, it is very likely that they would be misused sooner or later. Do we have sufficient awareness and safeguards against such misuse – against the creation of a data-driven dictatorship or technological totalitarism? Unfortunately, doubts are in place. This is the more concerning, as the technology to run a data-driven dictatorship are already in place – and it is hard to believe that such a dictatorship would be “benevolent”, as some people seem to suggest. It is time to wake up and build another kind of digital society! How could it look like?

For more, CLICK "The dream to control the world and why it is failing"

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