Image: Black Mirror

As surveillance technologies become more ubiquitous, the threat of centralized, state-sponsored social control increases. Almost every device we use is embedded with data collecting technologies — the Internet of Things. It is a chaotic mess of all sorts of data. But with a clever enough computer algorithm and an obscene amount of resources, this data can be coalesced into user profiles revealing the intimate details of a person’s life.

The Wall Street Journal has recently reported on a Chinese effort to pilot a “Social Credit System” which would collate and aggregate a wide variety of data to rate citizens as desirable or undesirable. This is an ambitious system that will eventually seek to combine large databases from all aspects of society: financial, legal, social, political and cultural. If a citizen is marked as deviant and their credit rating drops, they may be prevented from traveling, getting access to hotels, loans, fast treatment in state departments, and other everyday luxuries.  

Such a system seems to be straight out of a dystopian science fiction. For a government to harness the power of data and use it for direct social control seems like an episode of Black Mirror (actually it is…see here). Though it’s theoretically possible to work with so much data, there is a chance that the pilot project being conducted in the city of Hangzhou may be far too ambitious and fail.

This system will have to rely on Big Data technologies. This means large swaths of constantly changing streams of data. No human could possibly process such a behemoth. It’s collection and analysis would have to be conducted by complex computer algorithms. This is a typical surveillance ambition — though it’s mechanisms may seem a bit dreamy.

In a perfect nightmare, citizens would be exposed to a staggering amount of surveillance and state social control. This is being engineered in a nation where state snooping has become a norm. Algorithms offer the potential to automate social control. This can happen through a very careful curating of social media content (like fake news). Or through complex behavioural shaping (see surveillance capitalism). By harnessing this data to create an algorithmic hierarchy that shapes a citizen’s access to public utilities, for citizens to maintain a decent standard of living they will be forced to play the state’s game.

Though don’t get frightened yet. Even if China were able to construct a set of algorithms to merge and centralize databases, build profiles for all of its citizens, and sort through desirable and undesirable citizens, such a system would be prone to bugs, errors and mistakes. The system could collapse before it starts. Alternatively, people could have their lives unknowingly ruined by a glitch in the system. Hackers could have the potential to break into the system and augment people’s profiles.

Canada is not exempt from this dystopic reality. In the post-Bill-C-51 political atmosphere, we already have the legal infrastructure for such a practice. Within the controversial C-51 omnibus was a legal change called the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act. This is a piece of legislation that allows over 100 federal agencies to share data. Sometimes entire databases. According to Micheal Vonn, Policy Director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association,

“The Information Sharing Act gives listed federal bodies (said to represent more than 100 agencies) the ability to disclose Canadians’ personal information to other government institutions that have mandates or responsibilities that are relevant to the detection, identification, analysis, prevention, investigation or disruption of “activities that undermine the security of Canada”.  This term — ‘activities that undermine the security of Canada’ — is a special concept that is entirely new to Canadian law.  It is so broad that, according to the Act, it goes far beyond public safety and includes aspects of ordinary public life ranging from “the administration of justice ” to Canada’s financial and economic stability.”

If this “Social Credit System” is a success in China, it would not take a stretch of imagination to see it brought to Canada. Especially if we already have the capability to create a centralized database of citizen profiles. Though Canada does not have a sufficient state sponsored big data program — the scaffolding is certainly being put into place.

The Public Consultation on National Security to address the amendments for the Anti-terrorism Act (2015) (C-51) are closing on December 15, 2016. If you are concerned about the state’s ability to create these invasive data bases that cast a shroud of uncertainty over where your data might end up — be sure to participate.

Please chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Image: Black Mirror


Abigail Curlew

Abigail Curlew is a PhD student at Carleton University, a writer, and an activist. Her research is focused on the sociology of surveillance, technology, and security. She writes to bring attention to...