Despite political institutions keeping the subject on the low, whistleblowers and civil rights activists are raising flags regarding what they regard as a threat to fundamental freedom for States. A trend leading to the disappearance of physical currency, they fear, will inconspicuously and irreversibly invite totalitarianism into our lives.
As the virtual layer of the world continuously expands, more and more things from our daily lives lose their material feel, to enter the computerized and intangible world. Fewer and fewer people know the feel of mail paper on fingertips, or pilots no longer use the expression “flying by the seat of their pants”, as computers have been entasked with more and more of our operations. Amongst the things disappearing from our lives, are coins and paper. Adam Forrest writes (1) for the Guardian: “As more shops and transport networks adapt to contactless card and touch-and-go mobile technology, many major cities around the world are in the process of relegating cash to second-class status. Some London shops and cafes are now, like the capital’s buses, simply refusing to handle notes or coins.” The website LetsTalkPayments.com confirms (2) with hard data: “UK’s popular mobile payment system Paym. has crossed 26 million pounds in transaction volume. Two thirds (66%) of the UK population is aware of mobile payments, with more than half (52%) of those with knowledge of mobile payments aware of Paym.” Would this new era replace hassle with danger?
The right to privacy has been a rising concern for many citizens in the developed world, as they become gradually aware of the extent to which anyone and everyone can keep an eye on them. Large-scale government surveillance (3) was perhaps the primer to the subject, as citizens realized their every move and action was under discreet scrutiny. The rise of uncontrolled data originating from social networking sites (SNS) added a new layer of worrying complexity to the matter, as was revealed by an in-depth study (4) by CyberPsychology :”The booming popularity of SNSs has brought an additional dimension to the complexity of privacy risks. According to Zittrain (2008), early threats to people’s online information privacy came mostly from data stored in government or corporate databases, which he calls Privacy 1.0; yet, with the rise of SNSs, we have transitioned into an era of Privacy 2.0, where the data is generated and shared by individuals, and the “generativity” of SNSs breeds a new generation of privacy problems”. But how does this data jeopardize our liberty?
Traceability is the key word in this cashless society we are slowly drifting towards, where financial information is linked to locations, people and things, through the aggregation of banking and SNS data. When virtual purchases are carried out by a citizen, they leave information within server logs, known as a “paper trail”, even though they are dematerialized. Nathan Heller, from the New Yorker, wrote (5):”With a pocket of cash, you could be anyone: a Russian spy, a birthday celebrant, an avvocato out for a night on the town. With a cashless trail, you were fated always to be what you had always been; you couldn’t flee far from your name, your purchases, even your network of friends. You were always, by your cards or cell phone, outed as yourself”, designating the constant accountability for non-cash-payments. Part of this information is transmitted to the citizen himself, in his bank statement. But banks also keep a record of these transactions. Who can then access these records, is anyone’s guess. Of course, State agencies are on the usual suspects’ list. This is one of the reasons why governments are keen to accelerate the demonetization of societies. In addition to representing a hefty expense for them, in the design, production and management of bills and coins, currency creates a lack of control for the legal and economic policies which they wouldn’t mind seeing gone.
Now, to some extent, many citizens don’t object to having a government keep an eye on such matters, because they perceive immediate benefits and no immediate downsides. In a way, these citizens are right. With transaction data, banks can provide us with instant information, and companies can target their advertising towards things we would actually be liable to purchase, rather than random and annoying guesses. As for the government’s capacity to monitor an increasingly cashless society, it increases their capacity to prevent terrorism, and to fight crime, whilst leaving the honest citizen in relative peace. But civil rights activists are not concerned about today, they are alarmed about tomorrow. Elaine Ou, writing for Bloomberg, describes (6) the cashless perspective as falsely convenient and safe, and also “creepy” : “A cashless economy violates the basic laws under which currency has operated since before the Industrial Revolution. The justification for giving up a fundamental freedom is that it would clear the way for an experimental policy designed to place a tax on currency. Money may be a shared illusion, but cash abolitionists are in a hallucination all their own.” Their fear is based not on what governments do, but on what they can do, our could do with that information in a near future. With a comprehensive list of all a citizen’s purchases and belongings, a government is liable to use public force to pressure its citizens by stripping them of all of their belongings.
It is in the nature of crises that they become visible when it is already too late to respond, or else they would never come to be. Civil rights activists are trying to bring the matter to public attention before populations have locked themselves into a situation where no longer have any escape. If modern societies continue to drift towards the cashless era, they will have failed to keep powers, between States and their peoples, on an even keel.