Most of us have travelled in an Uber. We have rated the driver – and the driver has rated us. But how far could that go? Could all aspects of our life be rated? What would the consequences be? And is one very well-known household name already giving us a chilling glimpse of the future…

By Mark Richards.

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I went up to Edinburgh to see our son, who is at the university there. Living in a relatively small town, it was my first experience of using Uber.

“This is brilliant,” I said to my wife. “You don’t need money.”

“That’s because it’s linked to my bank account, dear,” she replied.

That small marital mistake aside, Uber was brilliant. Smart, polite drivers. No listening to car 38 complaining that Mrs Wilkinson was keeping him waiting and an easy-to-use app that told you where your cab was, what the driver was called and how soon he would be with you.

I had known that Uber gave you the chance to rate your driver: what I had not known was that the driver also rated you, the passenger. “For sure,” one of the drivers said when I asked him about it. “If you’re rated below 4.5 most of the guys I know won’t pick you up.”

When I was back at our hotel I Googled it. There are any number of sins you can commit – and not just throwing up after the office Christmas party. Not talking to the driver; being too talkative – and being ‘over-amorous’ on the back seat (which was not a problem we had after 25 years of marriage…)

“Yeah,” my son said when I discussed it with him. “One of my friends is a 4.2 and he has real problems getting a cab. It’s a good job your account is in Mum’s name,” he added cryptically.

Well, you think, at least it could never happen here. Never say never: because in one country it already has happened. And another, very well known name on the internet might be moving in that direction…

You may remember an episode of Black Mirror, where everyone received a rating for every single social interaction. That did not end well – but in China, that is exactly what they are now doing. The country has introduced a social rating system, and people are already being rewarded and penalised – far more severely than my son’s pal’s struggle to get a cab.

How does China’s rating system work?

In China, people’s routine behaviour is rated and scored, and data accumulated. A high social credit score can lead to perks (lower energy bills), whereas a low one can mean exclusion from, for example, certain dating sites.

First introduced in 2014, the social credit system aims to reinforce the idea that ‘keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful.’

The programme is due to be fully operational by 2020 but is being piloted for millions of people already. The scheme is mandatory: you cannot opt-in or opt-out. And if you think that sounds draconian and/or dystopian, you would be right.

Like your credit score, your social score can move up or down depending on your behaviour. The exact methodology is secret (obviously) but apparently examples of bad behaviour include poor driving, smoking in no-smoking zones, buying too many video games and posting fake news online.

As your credit score declines, so the range of ‘punishments’ increases – from banning you from taking the train or flying to throttling your internet speed to not allowing your children to attend the best schools.

‘Naming and shaming’ will be another tactic, with a notice from the Chinese government encouraging companies to consult the blacklist – yes, one already exists – before hiring people or giving them contracts.

‘Good citizens,’ on the other hand, get a better rate on their savings, can buy things without a deposit and – this is the real prize – get more matches on dating sites.

Could your Uber Rating determine your Future?

Could it happen here?

I can think of nothing more terrifying – I sent some food back in a restaurant last week so that is me banished to the Wastelands – but could it really happen here? Of course, it could, and it may be closer than you think. A very well-known household name could already be playing a prominent part in it.

It is not just a social credit system: as we all know there are rigid censorship rules in China, especially governing what can and cannot be shown/searched on the internet. In August of this year, there was a story that Google’s staff were unhappy about a search engine that the company was building for China, especially as it appeared that the search engine would comply with the Chinese government’s rules on censorship.

Google and Dragonfly

Google withdrew its search engine from China eight years ago due to censorship and hacking – but is now apparently working on a project (codenamed ‘Dragonfly’) for the country’s government. The project apparently has a filter that would remove certain topics and thereby meet China’s censorship laws.

Understandably, Google employees are angry. One – obviously anonymous – member of staff said,

“Everyone’s access to documents got turned off and is only turned on for individual documents. There’s been total radio silence from leadership, which is making a lot of people upset and scared.”

The worries about Google do not stop there. Earlier this week Breitbart published what purported to be a leaked internal memo, suggesting that the company was abandoning free speech in favour of ‘safety and civility.’ The problem, of course, is who defines ‘safety and civility?’ It is all too easy to see it being defined as ‘whatever agrees with our position.’ Certainly, several right-wing sites are very worried about Google’s move, citing the problems any declared supporters of Donald Trump had working in Silicon Valley.

Human Rights Watch called China’s social credit system ‘chilling:’ other commentators have labelled it, ‘a futuristic vision of Big Brother out-of-control.’

Me? I don’t care. It’s cold out here in the Wastelands, but I caught a decent sized rat in the trap so at least I’ll eat tonight…