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Sesame score

Explainers

Know the Sesame Score

March 17th, 2021

If you’re reading this from anywhere but China, you probably don’t have a Sesame Score. But if you care at all about internet privacy and security, you should know what it is.

The Chinese government has created a social credit monitoring system to look over every member of its population. It’s called Zhima Credit and is popularly known as Sesame Credit or China’s Sesame Score. It was developed by Ant Financial, which is owned by Alibaba, the major online marketplace of China that competes with sites like eBay and Amazon.

Like a Loyalty Card

As the Washington Post put it, China’s Sesame Score operates like a loyalty card scheme that monitors and measures how trustworthy a person is, based on their credit history and online activities. It’s tracking to see if you are a good citizen or more of a trouble maker.

If you exhibit positive traits—always paying bills on time—while refraining from “untrustworthy” or even illegal actions, your score will be higher. If you spread lies on social media, try to avoid paying taxes or commit traffic violations, your score goes down.

Everyone gets an individualized score. People who have high scores are eligible for loans at more favorable rates than those with lower Sesame Scores. They also enjoy better access to car-sharing systems and are eligible for free healthcare checkups. Sound great. But there are downsides, too. The Washington Post cites reports of people with low credit scores being blacklisted and suddenly unable to purchase plane tickets.

Pros and Cons

Proponents of this system say it discourages bad citizenship and rewards good behavior. In China, 80 percent of citizens approve of the Sesame Score and other social credit efforts, according to the Post. Furthermore, 76% of Chinese people responding to a poll generally distrust Chinese society. They view a social credit system as useful for combating social ills ranging from con artists to polluters.

But from an outsider’s perspective, the Big Brother comparisons are obvious and the risks of abuse and repression glaring. China’s electronic surveillance directly affects tourists and foreigners who do business in the country. Forbes reports that “new cybersecurity laws give the Chinese government access to files, contracts, copyrights, business strategies and phone records with no permission asked” of foreign companies. China now requires businesses to gather and provide their internal information to a database to determine the “moral codes” of corporations that can lead in turn to punishment or reward.

Is this a harbinger of things to come in the United States? Powerful, largely anonymous corporations have already compiled profiles on internet users here. Those profiles can determine which ads you see and how long you wait on hold when calling customer service. Big Tech has been tracking all of us for years. In some ways, the Sesame Score isn’t all that foreign.

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