Cashless Society: The Spy In Your Wallet
The powers that be are pushing for a cashless society although some of the technology involved is hardly fit for purpose. But will going cashless and totally digital really be a benign move towards a safer, more convenient world, or will it amount to a monstrous invasion of privacy and a curtailment of personal liberty?
Back In 1971 Libertarians Were Predicting Debit Cards Would Become A Spy Tool For Authoritarian Governments
In 2013 The Wall Street Journal reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) was monitoring the card transactions of American citizens. Following that, two U.S. Senators, Wyden and Udall – who both sit on the Senate Intelligence Committee and thus are able to see classified information regarding the government’s digital snooping wrote:
“Section 215 of the Patriot Act can be used to collect any type of records whatsoever … including information on credit card purchases, medical records, library records, firearm sales records, financial information and a range of other sensitive subjects.”
Many government agencies (as well as search engine operators and social networking websites) are now tracking your credit and debit card purchases and other electronic transactions. In fact, all the U.S. intelligence agencies including the CIA are spying on citizens finances. And you can bet if the US government are doing it, other governments are too.
This is not a new thing, I worked in computers and was aware from the 1970s that governments, banks and corporate businesses foresaw a world in which all business was conducted digitally and it would be possible to create an electronic Panopticon, a total surveillance society. Stories about how the world wide web was 'invented' by a mild mannered, self effacing British scientist are bollocks. A global network was being planned from the time computers exchanged information over telephone lines at a maximum of 1200 bits per second.
In late October 1971, Matt Novak of Gizmodo reports, a group of academics and technologists were invited to attend a conference in Georgetown, a suburb of Washington D.C.. They were tasked with devising a comprehensive but invisible surveillance system. Their solution looked a lot like our current debit / credit card system.
This was the problem statement given to that conference in 1971:
“Suppose you were an adviser to the head of the KGB, the Soviet Secret Police. Suppose you are given the assignment of designing a system for the surveillance of all citizens and visitors within the boundaries of the USSR. The system is not to be too obtrusive or obvious. What would be your decision?”
What kind of unobtrusive digital surveillance system did they propose? It wasn’t a network that would intercept every phone call or the placing of CCTV cameras on every street. They imagined an EFTS (electronic funds transfer system) that looked almost identical to the transaction processing software in use today.
"Not only would it handle all the financial accounting and provide the statistics crucial to a centrally planned economy, it was the best surveillance system we could imagine within the constraint that it not be obtrusive."
Paul Armer wrote in a 1975 edition of Computers and People recalling the KGB-inspired experiment.
The full article gave readers a preview of the system that would evolve. Here's a snippet:
"Let’s look at one way it might work. Say you are about to buy a book. You present your card (sometimes called a “debit card”, although National Americard calls theirs an “asset card”) to a clerk who puts it into a terminal which reads it and then calls up your bank. If you have enough money in your account, or if your bank is willing to grant you that much credit, the transaction is okayed; your account is debited; and a credit transfer is made from you bank to the book store’s bank account.”
<p> Armer, a computer scientist at US Defence contractor RAND was an advocate of digital privacy long before most people had credit or debit cards and the internet was a pipe dream usually referred to as 'The Information Superhighway'. Computers in Armer’s era were much larger and their networking tools were much more primitive. But Armer could see what was coming and was one of the few to predict this envisaged cashless society actually posed a threat to the liberty of individuals in democratic societies.
<p>Think about all the data banks collect every time you swipe your card. There is nobody watching you as an individual of course, but while Artificial Intelligence will never be a reality unless we radically redefine what we mean by intelligence, the great advantages computers have over humans are first, they can parse huge amounts of information extremely quickly, and collate results from masses of search results and secondly that they don't get bored. After a few weeks of digital transactions, anyone with access to that information can start to paint a pretty detailed picture of how you live your life.
Most importantly perhaps, that picture is being painted without you giving it much thought at all. Thus the bank official who will approve your loan application or decide to foreclose on your mortgage will know in a matter of seconds precisely where, when, and how you’re spending your money and whether you are a financially responsible person. Woe betide you if you like a bet on the horses, consult psychics or fortune tellers, visit massage parlours or indulge in dangerous sports.
This looks even more sinister when we observe that governments, academics, the finance industry and creepy individuals like Bill Gates of Microsoft and Eric Schmidt of Google are promoting the cashless society, so they can surveil and control us.
The threats to privacy and freedom are multiple if society becomes cashless. All transactions would be trackable, and because individuals could not hold cash and all electronic transactions are monitored all private financial holdings would be vulnerable to <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/05/11/how-the-dea-took-a-young-mans-life-savings-without-ever-charging-him-of-a-crime/">seizure or attack by the government</a> next time they need to bail out banks or corporations that are too big to fail. This would be the ultimate form of control, it has already happened in Cyprus and is probably about to happen in Greece.