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May 20th, 2020

Can cryptocurrencies save financial privacy amidst global shift to digital payments?

topic:Digital Rights
by:Emanuel Coen

We are currently witnessing the death of cash. All around the world, the share of cash-based payments is decreasing. Instead, we are seeing a shift to digital and mobile payments. So what? After all, there are good reasons to shift to cash.

From a consumer perspective, having to carry cash around can be a burden and banks often charge customers for withdrawing it from ATMs. For businesses, cash handling is equally as expensive. Cash payments take more time at the counter and employees are more prone to make mistakes when counting and returning change. Not to forget, cash needs to be picked up at the end of every day by specialised security companies who charge for that service.

Governments, on the other hand,  have an interest in seeing digital payments take over as they reduce the possibility for businesses to evade taxes and launder money.

What already looked like a dire situation for cash before got exacerbated by the current COVID-19 crisis. The Pandemic has forced billions of people worldwide to change their spending habits almost literally overnight. Who wants to hold a note that has gone through thousands of hands in the germophobic world that we currently live in? Many stores have gone to completely ban cash payments. Some countries, notably China, Russia and South Korea, have taken cash out of circulation and burnt it.

Nobody knows if we’re going back to the level of cash payments before the crisis. Some of this change might be temporary and some might not - spending habits, once acquired, are hard to break.

A look into a cashless future…

Seems like everybody is happy in a world without cash, no? The problem is that along with cash dies financial anonymity.

Every form of digital payment requires a middleman - a credit card company, PayPal or some other company - which knows your identity and keeps a record of your transactions on its servers. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that this financial data is immensely valuable as it can be used to understand people’s purchasing behaviour. The big tech companies have understood this better than anyone.  

Today we have GooglePay, ApplePay, FacebookPay, and AmazonPay along with hundreds of other players rivalling to become our wallet of choice. In China, where digital payments have become ubiquitous, we see first examples of how users’ financial behaviour can then be tied into a ‘Social Credit Score’. Have you paid for a service on a ‘dirty’ online site? Good luck getting your kid into the best schools. Haven’t paid your last loan back in time? Good luck with getting a new one.

But privacy is only one concern. Censorship-resistance is another. The issue with centralised payment providers like PayPal or your bank is that the money that you hold in your account is just a number in their database. Companies holding that money on your behalf can seize or freeze that money arbitrarily or as a result of government pressure. Though there might be a good reason for it every now and then, for the most part, this is not the case.

Governments don’t always act in the best interest of their citizens, and the easiest way to suppress people is to cut them off financially. In 2010, PayPal and Visa froze the accounts of whistleblower platform Wikileaks by request of the U.S. government and banned them from receiving further donations. In Hong Kong, donation accounts of the Hong Kong activists were seized in a similar fashion following pressure from the Chinese government. This list of examples goes on and on.

Cryptocurrency as ‘electronic cash

Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ether are a radically new form of money. In short, they are currencies that are completely electronic; they live on peer-to-peer networks that anyone can connect to and can’t be controlled by any single entity. Contrary to fiat money issued by governments, bitcoins are not created out of thin air but through miners all over the world who provide computing power to the network to validate the transactions that are broadcasted to the network. 

In other words, these networks are not run by private entities like Visa or Mastercard, but by a global network of computers (much like the Internet). These computers don’t enforce moral codes, they just check that payments are valid and execute them accordingly. This means that users can send their money to wherever they want; a game-changer for citizens in oppressed countries like Iran or Venezuela.

Secondly, no entity can seize or freeze users’ accounts.  Unlike in the traditional system where money sits in bank accounts, with crypto, users hold their funds in cryptocurrency wallets, that only they have control over.

Moreover, users don’t expose their real-world identity on the network, but receive a cryptographic address, such as ‘0x79C4213a328E3B4F1D87b4953C14759399dB25E3’, which allows them to remain pseudonymous. Only when they buy or sell their cryptocurrency through cryptocurrency exchanges, users have to register with their identity documents. 

That said, there are plenty of options to sell and buy cryptocurrency in more private ways. In fact, the Human Rights Foundation has published a guide on how to use cryptocurrency privately for journalists and activists under surveillance by authoritarian governments. Peer-to-peer exchanges, for instance, let users buy cryptocurrency from private sellers, similar to how you buy a piece of furniture from a seller on eBay, and thereby keep your identity hidden from the exchange.

Conclusion

While it is tempting to only focus on the opportunities cryptocurrencies present to criminals, it’s more important to focus on what it represents for law-abiding citizens that make up the vast majority of society. Electronic cash and financial sovereignty are essential to sustaining a liberal open society. 

Countries, where privacy is taken seriously, are waking up to this reality. In Germany and Austria, there are first attempts to protect citizens’ rights to cash in the constitution. The European Central Bank, on the other hand, is testing ways to issue a “CBDC”: central bank digital currency. The project’s introduction sounds quite alarming: “Against the background of the ongoing digitalisation of the economy, the payments ecosystem needs to find an answer to an issue that concerns all citizens: the question of how to allow some degree of privacy in electronic payments, while still ensuring compliance with AML/CFT regulations”.

While it’s reassuring that some countries work on alternatives, we need to keep in mind that not all governments have the best interest of their citizens in mind. We need to start having a public debate about how citizens' right to financial privacy will be guaranteed in an increasingly digital world. Cryptocurrency is the best way to provide an alternative to citizens of these countries.

Emanuel Coen is the founder of Cryptotesters.com - a crypto product comparison platform that helps people find the right products and get started on their crypto journey. 

Image credit: bk1498528 Blore

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