Chinese Firms Help Government Monitor Citizens with Big Data

A Chinese city is using big data provided by a phone company to track the movement of its migrant worker population, expanding the many ways China is using big data to not just enhance performance but also track the daily lives of its citizens.

“When you buy a mobile phone SIM card, you need to register your identity information,” said an officer of China Mobile designated at the company’s booth during the recent Big Data Expo in southwest China’s Guiyang city. He was explaining how the mobile phone company is assisting Guiyang police about the movement of migrants in the city on a real-time basis.

“So, we can obtain information about the people in a given area and details like whether they are men or women, their age, and where they come from,” he said.

Very suddenly, big data is set to take up many of the responsibilities of the Communist Party’s feedback mechanism. It is also expected to act as feedstock for the anti-corruption campaign, which has been using information about spending on wines and luxury buying for the purpose of investigations.

Social profiling

China has already introduced a system data-driven social credit rating system in 40 towns and cities, which will be expanded to the entire country by 2020.

Information about a person buying expensive wine, foreign luxury goods or an air ticket would be fed into a giant system which will analyze blocks of data to keep the government informed about the situation on the ground.

The tracking of people posting critical comments in social media is already going on and social media data will also be fed into the system, which goes far beyond financial credit ratings practiced in developed countries. Here, the system isn’t focused entirely on debts and earnings, but on economic and social behaviors with an intention to allocate rewards and punishments.

China’s Internet-based companies are eagerly joining the government’s grand experiment. Mobike, a bike hiring company is giving out award points for bicycle users to voluntarily inspect parked bikes and inform the company about the misbehavior of other bikers.

A big data based information system might help improve the working of the police force in some respects. Officials in the government’s education and health departments said big data is being introduced as a tool improve delivery systems.

Risks for many

But it can also help authorities in tracking the movement of political dissidents, journalists, NGO workers, foreign companies and individuals, analysts said.

“For international companies operating in China, the Social Credit System poses significant challenges,” Mirjam Meissner, an expert with Mercator Institute of China Studies in Berlin, said. “They will probably be fully integrated into the system’s mechanisms and could see their freedom of decision-making in China significantly constrained,” she said.

At the same time, the rating system could create a more level playing field, since both domestic and international companies would be subject to the same rating mechanisms, Meissner said.

Kweichow Moutai Group, which produces high-end wines, has introduced a mobile phone app and encourages buyers to make online purchases.

“We monitor online sales to analyze the proportion of our potential users and our actual users. So, we can allocate our promotion efforts in different regions based on the information,” an official posted at the company’s booth at the Guiyang Big Data Expo said.

“The data is only for decision-making support to our company, and our data is not being made public,” he said.

However, officials from several companies confirmed that they routinely share data with government departments. For instance, the government’s tourism department collects data from online ticket selling companies and airlines to determine the flow of Chinese tourists to specific countries, and judge which destination is attracting high-spenders.

This information is seen as a major asset for the government, which is anxious about the movement of money and talent out of China. In addition, China is widely believed to use tourism as a political lever in dealing with foreign governments.

For instance, it is believed to have actively discouraged the movement of Chinese tourists to South Korea during the recent controversy over the installation of the U.S.-made THAAD anti-missile system. China and South Korea are now discussing the resumption of tourist flows as part of a new effort to mend forces.


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