MasterCard, Microsoft to Develop “Digital Identity” System

Critics blast program as Orwellian

Image Credits: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Amid controversy over the Chinese “social credit score” system, MasterCard and Microsoft are developing a “universally-recognized digital identity.”

The plan, which Fast Company’s Cale Guthrie Weissman criticized as “frightening,” revolves around creating a “digital identity” people will use when they drive, apply for a job, rent a home or board a plane, according to a recent tweet by MasterCard News.

“What this announcement seems to be describing is a streamlined identification system: a not-too-far-off world where people are identified under a universal protocol that checks in on them at various points during their lives–when they vote, when they get married, etc.,” reported Weissman. “It’s the kind of a citizen-check system a totalitarian regime could only dream of.”

The announcement met with backlash on Twitter, with Weissman and other critics comparing the program’s “universal protocol” aspect in particular to the “social credit score” system being implemented in China in which every citizen is assigned a “score,” based on their obedience, which determines whether they can travel or buy essential goods.

“Already, countries have begun implementing identification systems that seem ripped from an Orwell novel,” Weissman continued. “India, for example, has a program that scans citizens’ fingerprints and eyes, which connects all of their personal data (from cellphone information to government benefits) into one state-controlled apparatus.”

“China, too, is planning to use a country-wide citizen identification system that would give people ‘social credit’ scores about the way they behave.”

A 2015 article by Zero Hedge explained this system:

China’s ‘social credit system’ aims to create a docile, compliant citizenry who are fiscally and morally responsible by employing a game-like format to create self-imposed, group social control. In other words, China gamified peer pressure to control its citizenry; and, though the scheme hasn’t been fully implemented yet, it’s already working — insidiously well.

The Chinese system uses a centralized apparatus much like India’s, hence the comparison.

The joint MasterCard/Microsoft “digital identity” program has also raised privacy concerns because, according to Weissman,  “every citizen would be entering into a system built by private companies that centralizes all of their personal data.”

MasterCard, however, stated that the program is still in development and will be customer-centric:

The service will allow the data to sit with its rightful owner–the individual–and wouldn’t involve amassing personal data in honeypots vulnerable to attack. In no situation would Mastercard collect users’ identity data, share it or monitor their interactions. Instead the data would reside with the trusted party, and our service would merely validate the information already provided, once an individual has decided to do so. This is about giving the individual control over who sees their information and how it’s used.