In many parts of the world, government-led efforts are pushing economies towards cashlessness. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries such as Singapore and the Philippines saw their central banks encouraging adoption of contactless payments. As a result, usage rates for digital payment platforms recorded huge growth — as much as 5,000% in the Philippines, by some estimates.
These trends have been building momentum globally for the past few decades, now culminating in discussions about fully digitised economies based on so-called crypto technology.
But, in parallel, another trend can be observed: global standards of freedom and privacy have been plummeting.
Freedom House, the democratic freedoms advocacy group, has been gauging a decline in levels of national freedoms every year since 2006. While technology is transforming our world in incredible ways, it’s putting norms and rights that were once taken for granted under threat.
There are a great number of causes to this problem, but without question, digital information technology bears a large share of the responsibility
Why is this the case?
Data — the modern-day gold — is simply too powerful.
“The post-Snowden era saw the proportion of Americans fearing the government intruding into their private lives reach a majority, with an estimated 53% deeming it a threat, and 70% considering the State abused its authority,” according to Cashless-Economy.com, referencing data from the Pew Research Centre.
The Snowden leak, along with other information releases by private citizens, highlights how governments, in seeking to acquire and exert power, readily misuse technologies that were developed for wider society.
The digital technologies that enable us to reach friends and family around the world at a moment’s notice, mobile phones, the internet, online information repositories — these tools can all be repurposed.
What’s more, with data analysis techniques, organizations do no longer need all the details to know everything about an individual. According to the former general counsel of the United States National Security Agency, Stewart Baker, they simply need the digital breadcrumbs.
“Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life. If you have enough metadata you don’t really need content…[It’s] sort of embarrassing how predictable we are as human beings,“ he said during a discussion in 2013 hosted by The Guardian newspaper.
This fact is what should give democratic nations, businesses, and — in particular — individual members of the public, the reason for pause. While it is true that digital payments are convenient, they come with hidden non-monetary costs. Indeed, the complete digitalization of our economy could impact the very notion of privacy
Some of the state’s motivations to go cashless are the power to scrutinise citizens, to bring down tax avoidance rates, and to prevent financial crimes. In business, things are not so different. In seeking control over consumers, businesses aim for financial gain. Profit underpins the human capitalist enterprise — but when the end justifies the means, it’s the public who suffers.
What we are seeing now are consumers being transformed into products themselves — most famously by Facebook and companies with similar advertisement-based business models. The profits to be made in monetizing the private data of citizens incentivize businesses to glean as much of it as possible.
It is this misalignment between the public’s interests, on the one hand, and the goals of big business and government on the other, that makes the idea of a cashless society so troubling.
The problem with going cashless is that all the alternatives involve digital payments. And these come bundled with dangerously powerful information-gathering mechanisms.
Where you use your credit card necessarily becomes stored information. It is required for the payments infrastructure to validate and process transactions. But it also becomes information that can be used to monitor your behaviors. In fact, this is the bedrock of the modern data economy: businesses trade and transact based on this data.
The issue was highlighted by Washington Post technology columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler in a simple experiment to investigate the breadth and distance that personal data travels in the data economy.
“Despite a federal privacy law covering cards, I found that six types of businesses could mine and share elements of my purchase, multiplied untold times by other companies they might have passed it to,” Fowler explains.
More worryingly, the columnist struggled to wade through the layers of opaque business spaces that deal in this data to find out everything that went on. The complexity was exaggerated by companies choosing to be less than transparent.
Digital payments are problematic. Cash, on the other hand, allows for truly anonymous transactions without the need to record the details. This protects people in the same way as free speech laws. It is not that people like to be able to say anything, or buy anything without scrutiny: it is that these are essential bulwarks against authoritarian state controls.
As power shifts towards large digital behemoths, people need protection from private as well as public organizations. In fact, with companies operating at times as digital mercenaries for governments, as was seen in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in some ways the two realms are blending into one.
This makes it doubly important that cash remains available to people so that they have a way to opt-out of any system that make use of their private data. Otherwise, we won’t be using these ‘services’: they will be using us.