If you think the subject matter of this piece is pointing to a futuristic, dystopian world, you would be right. But if you think the scenario is too far-fetched to become reality, then you could be very wrong.
As more and more people become concerned at the harvesting of personal data by unseen agencies of the state, there is a growing fear that we are beginning to trade individual privacy for the dubious benefits of digital convenience.
A recent trawl by a team of journalists from the Irish Independent found disturbing evidence that the information held on each of us by government, semi-state and financial institutions is far more comprehensive than we could imagine.
How often do we disregard the deeper intent of the message ‘Calls are recorded for training and quality purposes’ when we impart personal medical or financial information to the stranger at the other end of the line? And how easy it is to forget that the credit card number we so readily give – together with the so-called three-digit security code – is already being filed away in data records and can be easily retrieved by anyone with a mind to criminal intent.
Civil liberty activists claim that we are sleepwalking our way into trading our individual rights in return for the promise of a safer, more secure, better ordered society. They strongly oppose legislation to allow the Garda access to facial recognition technology as a threat to the right to privacy. They refute the counter argument that the ability to track and identify people in this way is a necessary part of modern policing.
The whole concept of data gathering and data retention has come into clearer focus with the move towards ‘social crediting’, now gaining traction in many countries. Social crediting, according to its proponents, is a measure which pushes people to become better citizens, to the benefit of society as a whole. In the UK, its use is being urged in order to ‘harvest data so as to improve the economy and to streamline public services’.
Social crediting is a system first introduced in China in 2014 and now widely used in several provinces across that country. It amounts to a score-card system whereby good citizens are rewarded for being compliant, law abiding and submissive, while transgressors find themselves punished in different ways for their non conformity.
Social credit is dependent on masses of information being compiled on every citizen, processed by a central authority, and then used as a measure of trust worthiness.
First introduced in Shanghai and used to determine eligibility for loans, the system has extended to a point where millions of people live under constant surveillance from what time they go to work, to what food they buy in the market, to how promptly they pay their bills, to how effectively they separate their household waste.
Every adult starts with a nominal 1,000 points, which can be added to for acts of good citizenship – donating blood, caring for elderly parents, buying sensible fashions, eating healthy food, speaking well of the government – earning a range of rewards. Less-dutiful citizens – those who refuse to be vaccinated, who drink to excess, who skip medical appointments, who fail to pay their taxes – find themselves being punished, perhaps by slowed down broadband or being delayed a passport.
It may, for now, be highly unlikely that western democracies would rush down the road of social crediting. But that is not to say that many governments would not relish the idea of a little benign dictatorship in return for a more compliant population.
Big Brother may not be at the door just yet. But he is waiting.