-By Carolanne Wright
Like many, I too was enamored with the advent of debit cards and other technological advances to make shopping easier. The convenience of not needing to cart around cash and fumble for exact change seemed liberating in its own way. This was decades ago, of course, and much has changed in how I view electronic transactions. What once was a starry-eyed love affair with a new technology has now morphed into horror as the ramifications slowly come to light.
Regardless, nations around the world are hell-bent on herding everyone towards a completely cashless, digital society. Which begs the questions: at what cost to our privacy and freedom? Is such a move Big Brother’s dream come true?
Corruption, Control and the Crusade Against Cash
Last November, Indian Prime Minister Narendra made a shocking announcement: the government would now ban 500- and 1,000-rupee bank notes, in a move to curb corruption and increase transparency — by forcing Indians to deposit undeclared money into banks. The problem is, about half of the population do not have bank accounts.
While the value of the notes — $7.37 and $14.75 US, respectively — may not seem overtly concerning, the two bills account for 86 percent of all India’s cash in circulation. Citizens were given just under two months, until the end of 2016, to trade in the bills for new rupee notes. Credit Suisse estimates that more than 90 percent of transactions in India are currently cash based. When the popular bills were outlawed, long lines at bank branches formed to exchange the bills, only to have the financial institutions run out because of poor planning.
To make matters worse, anyone who had 250,000 (approximately $3,687) or more, would be slammed with a 200 percent tax fine — if they could not explain why they had so much cash on hand and prove they had paid taxes on it. Moreover, for the 16 million Indians who live overseas, many lost thousands of dollars each since they had no way of exchanging their rupee notes, unless they traveled back to India before the deadline.
As a result of the government’s decision to outlaw the bills, 55 people have died — either because they were elderly and became exhausted waiting in long queues or by taking their own lives when unable to exchange their cash reserves, essentially becoming bankrupt. The country is in economic shambles, where “a vast majority of Indians have now been hit by a crippling paucity of cash.” Agricultural commodities have plummeted by 50 percent and families are cutting back on vital food items. The upper- and middle-class have fared slightly better, since they can rely on electronic transactions, like debit and credit cards, to meet their needs.
It’s not just India restricting the circulation of money, the U.S. and Europe also have a history of outlawing currency. Back in 1969, the U.S. discontinued $10,000, $5,000, $1,000 and $500 bills, leaving the $100 bill as the largest denomination. Today, there’s serious talk of eliminating even that, along with $50 banknotes. Next on the chopping block are $20 bills — leaving us with $10 as the highest denomination available, thereby severely restricting the use of cash for everyday transactions.
And now Australia has announced they are considering the elimination of its $100 banknote. Then there’s Sweden, leading the way in cashless transactions, where four out of five purchases are now made electronically. Niklas Arvidsson, a professor of industrial dynamics at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology, believes “going totally cash-free is the next step.” He thinks this will happen in the next five years.
Evidently, bus drivers were being attacked for their fares in the Nordic state, and there were also a spate of bank robberies — both of which prompted the move away from cash, according to Arvidsson. Cashless transactions are considered safer overall and save money. Surprisingly, Swedes don’t seem to question the ramifications a cashless society has on privacy and freedom. In contrast, many believe — especially in the United States, where suspicions run high about corruption in the government — this is a big mistake. Here’s why.
A Brave New World of Electronic Transactions
“As paper money evaporates from our pockets and the whole country—even world—becomes enveloped by the cashless society, financial censorship could become pervasive, unbarred by any meaningful legal rights or guarantees.” ~ The Atlantic
Nations around the world, who are moving towards a cashless society, claim cash promotes crime and encourages illegal transactions — including funding terrorists, money laundering and tax evasion. They also point out that printing and transporting physical currency incurs more cost than going cashless.
Some industries are also already making a killing by processing electronic payments, so the drive towards further profits through a completely cashless society is fierce. Even now, with cash still in the running, MasterCard processed 22.6 billion transactions and generated $3.3 billion revenues in 2010. Those numbers are only expected to rise if countries adopt entirely cashless economies.
Then there’s the UN Capital Development Fund’s Better Than Cash Alliance, backed by none other than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, MasterCard and Visa, among others. Ironically, the alliance claims “electronic payments can provide a pathway to a broader range of financial services, is generally safer, especially for women and girls and more efficient for low-income people.” Apparently, they haven’t been following the ensuing nightmare in India for the disenfranchised and poor after the country made a move to limit the availability of cash.
Also ignored are the repercussions of purely digital transactions on personal liberties. We trade privacy and freedom for electronic convenience. Every purchase — and consumer — is tracked. A data base of information is compiled each time you swipe a card. On the surface, this may not seen worrying — but if you dig a bit deeper, the implications are sobering.
Say you pay for a metro ticket with your card. Now, information is collected showing where you entered and then exited — in other words, the possibility of tracking just became that much more real. The same goes for any purchase — from food and clothing to entertainment, and much more. All of a sudden, a profile is created based on these transactions. With the expansion of the National Security Agency (NSA) in collecting data on anyone and everyone, we’ve moved from science fiction into reality, one in which surveillance is not only tolerated, but unwittingly embraced.
Writes Sarah Jeong in The Atlantic:
“Information is lightning-quick. It crosses cities, states, and national borders in the twinkle of an eye. It passes through many kinds of devices, flowing from phone to phone, and computer to computer, rather than being sealed away in those silent marble temples we used to call banks. Information never jangles uncomfortably in your pocket.
“But wherever information gathers and flows, two predators follow closely behind it: censorship and surveillance. The case of digital money is no exception. Where money becomes a series of signals, it can be censored; where money becomes information, it will inform on you.”
In other words, it’s Big Brother’s dream come true.