What happens to your privacy if you go completely cashless?

Covid-19 has accelerated the use of cashless transactions world-wide, which if permanent could expand on government surveillance initiatives

3 min read
Jamie

Jamie is always hungry. He also writes about digital privacy in exchange for sandwiches.

CCTV camera with a credit card on it.

Swiping a card or using your phone to pay for things is undoubtedly convenient but comes with obvious privacy risks. The move towards a completely cashless society endangers your privacy and, by extension, the freedom to buy what you want without having to worry about who might be watching over your shoulder.

What is a cashless society?

Cashless societies execute most of their financial transactions electronically, instead of with coins and banknotes. Transactions are conducted with credit and debit cards, mobile wallets, and banking apps, and often only require a swipe or a tap of a card or mobile device onto a card reader to make a payment.

Compared to counting change out of your wallet, electronic money makes paying for things convenient, and its rapid adoption in places like Sweden where less than 1% of all payments are conducted via banknotes in a few years shows the speed at which cashless payments can be rolled out nation-wide. WeChat has been adopted by over 1.2 billion users who use it to pay for pretty much everything.

Going cashless during Covid-19

The contagious nature of Covid-19 has meant taking measures to physically distance yourself from the virus as much as possible. This has included social distancing, working from home if possible, and avoiding the use of cash in transactions.

While the World Health Organization has denied saying that cash transmits Covid-19, that has not stopped countries and citizens taking precautions when handling cash.

China and South Korea have been disinfecting and even incinerating banknotes to prevent the spread. Countries with plastic money like Canada have advised citizens to, amusingly, carefully “launder” their money in washing machines if they need to.

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Online shopping, particularly for groceries, has surged, reflecting the bigger trend of our increasing reliance on electronic payments of goods and services we need.

Is going cashless worth your privacy?

Proponents of the cashless society argue that digital transactions can be used as a tool to fight corruption and organized crime, reduce theft, and increase spending.

Cashless transactions create a digital paper trail that businesses, banks, and authorities can use to track and monitor all of your purchases.

Given how frequently cyber attacks and data breaches happen to companies that leave customer information unprotected, cybercrime will likely increase too.

And even if that information is secure, it’s still recorded, to be used by banks, businesses, and authorities to learn as much as they can about you. This level of financial surveillance, and by extension, the control over your access to finances, leaves individuals and businesses at the mercy of institutions and regimes that find them unfavorable, and be denied access to their resources.

China, for instance, has a social credit system that discourages certain transactions on payment platforms like AliPay and WeChat, and an American initiative, “Operation Choke Point,” attempted to freeze the bank accounts of legal businesses that were apparently politically unfavorable.

If your ability to participate in an economy hinges completely on a bank’s approval or a mobile data plan, you are at the mercy of institutions that have total control over your access to your finances.

Cryptocurrencies can help, but they’re not immediately accessible

Bitcoin was born out of the frustrations of the banking system in 2008, creating a decentralized currency that removes the need for an intermediary (i.e. a bank) for the transaction.

Its popularity has since sky-rocketed, but Bitcoin still remains relatively volatile and an unviable alternative for most.

It’s mostly used as a hedging and speculative financial instrument, rather than a means of exchange — the traditional use of cash.

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The use of cash as an anonymous form of payment is decreasing, with few privacy-oriented alternatives to replace it. This gives banks, companies and governments access to the most intimate details of our lives.

Any shift towards a cashless society endangers the 1.7 billion people without a bank account or a mobile plan, further widening the digital divide, leaving them severely handicapped in their ability to purchase goods and services with cash. Knowing that you’re being surveilled in general already changes how you behave in public settings, it could also affect how you decide what you’ll buy online.

Moving towards a cashless society, without reflecting on how this could be used to surveil a populace and ostracize those who don’t have cash alternatives will only accelerate the degradation of individual privacy, one of many shifts this year.

Jamie writes about current issues concerning digital privacy and security and is known to interview leading figures in tech. He also keeps an eye on changes in government censorship and surveillance.