Saturday 21 July 2018

Adrian Weckler: Dystopian citizen scoring on cards

It sounds like an episode of the dystopian Netflix series, Black Mirror. (Especially the one where the character played by actress Bryce Dallas Howard (p) slowly falls apart as her universal social networking score starts to plummet.) Photo: Getty
It sounds like an episode of the dystopian Netflix series, Black Mirror. (Especially the one where the character played by actress Bryce Dallas Howard (p) slowly falls apart as her universal social networking score starts to plummet.) Photo: Getty
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Picture a world where you have an overall 'score' as a citizen. You get points for doing things like sorting your recycling bins correctly, giving to charity or visiting your elderly parents.

You're docked for activities such as spending too much time on 'idle' pursuits such as videogames or being too critical of the government.

This score is accessed by public and private services, which decide whether or not you're a good fit for whatever it is they're offering, from accommodation to financial support.

It sounds like an episode of the dystopian Netflix series, Black Mirror. (Especially the one where the character played by actress Bryce Dallas Howard slowly falls apart as her universal social networking score starts to plummet.)

But it's actually being introduced in the world's biggest country.

China is trialling a number of systems being developed by private companies such as Ant Financial (Alipay). By analysing citizens' purchases and public records, the processes - known by names such as Sesame Credit' - build up 'trust' profiles on citizens.

In some cases, the points tallies associated with these trust profiles qualify or disqualify the citizens from participating in a large range of ordinary activities and services.

Low-scoring individuals may be denied access to things like plane tickets or financial loans. Those who score well might skip queues in hospitals or rent apartments or bicycles with being required to leave a deposit.

Backers of the movement claim that it's a pragmatic way to organise the data now in existence about citizens, especially as relatively few Chinese people use credit cards, meaning that it's harder to assess financial risk.

But others see an advanced society casting off civil liberties and (already slim) privacy rights to exert unprecedented control on how they live.

Could it happen here?

There are certainly early signs that we're starting to regulate access to things based on our online reputations. Airbnb, an accommodation service that is now a mainstream alternative to hotels, is one such service. Having a positive profile (and maybe a positive wider profile online) gets you keys to more properties. 'Ride-sharing' services such as Uber are pioneering a similar process in what will probably become the future of transportation.

Alongside this, Ireland is currently trying to introduce a Personal Services Card, complete with biometric information such as facial scans of the citizen. It may be a bit of a leap to go from such a card to a Chinese-level of Black Mirror citizenship in one column. But the overarching question is whether our society is now starting to inexorably move toward a setup where it becomes irresistible to connect expanding online profiles of citizens with state verification processes.

For example, how long is it before private businesses not only accept a PSC card as a form of service verification but require it? And if that happens, surely it can't be long until the State gradually - over a period of several governments - starts to integrate the PSC as a precursor into other citizen requirements? Such as a demand from a Garda on a street to 'produce your papers' because he or she is unsure of whether you're a decent sort or not and 'wants to make sure'?

Today's public representatives say that this is not the intention with the PSC at all. They also insist that it is not a stalking horse for a national identity card.

Instead, they argue that such a card will simply make accessing -and processing - government services less chaotic and more efficient.

But are they kidding themselves? Isn't the overarching lesson of now-mainstream services such as Airbnb, Facebook, Google and Uber that a rump of society blithely adopts profiling and that future politicians and ministers will simply extend it to today's 'basic' Public Services Card?

Moreover, with biometric identification (fingerprints and face scans) now becoming the norm on our most-used devices (mobile phones), won't that PSC card try to start fitting in with ever-more services its stored biometric data?

Honestly, it's hard to escape this conclusion. It really doesn't matter that much that Paschal Donohoe, Regina Doherty or Leo Varadkar individually have little intention of creating a national identity card that becomes some sort of domestic passport.

It looks like it could happen anyway.

Against this overall drift toward profiling, it's thus beginning to look like a good thing that we're getting access to some general safeguards, mainly in the form of the General Data Protection Regulation.

This may help to curb the more aggressive impulses of both private and state organisations in bundling up our lives' records into packages that can be casually passed around to save on paperwork.

But it won't stop the general trend.

The fact is that many everyday things we do today are facilitated and recorded some way online. That includes basic information on what we do (our social media), where we go (our phones) what we buy (Amazon and other online stores) and who we talk to (messaging apps).

And we haven't even really got started yet on the 'internet of things', 5G or voice-control technology. When those take off, our minute-by-minute habits, predilections, achievements, trespasses and countless other elements will be documentable.

Is it too cynical to think that a future government will argue for the 'efficiency' of 'leveraging' such data to make public services 'more efficient'? Won't they do it anyway if (or when) our economy slumps again in five years and we have to cut public sector costs?

Ireland is not China. But the majority of us invariably use most or all of the new technology services as a way to save time or get access to things cheaply.

It's the job of government to look out for our long-term interests. It would be reassuring if government ministers could make a more convincing case that the Personal Services Card won't transmogrify into something slightly dystopian.

Sunday Indo Business

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