Brutal political shifts shake cashless economies around the world

The geopolitics of  means is just becoming more real. As countries go cashless, the masses see their economic freedom diminish, their transactions being monitored, tracked and controlled. For most government, the public reason behind getting rid of cash is ‘security’, but whose security?

Just a few decades ago, going cashless wasn’t even in the plans. Yes, there were futuristic dreams about revolutionary payment methods, some of which we are already using today on the net, but cash wasn’t considered an option, it was a right. At the time, choosing to be paid in cash meant to be the first to have its hands on the money we earned, the physical money that had palpable value.

The first countries that started to lead this Orwellian transition where money would become just an idea, numbers, aren’t the one you may think. Nigeria is Africa’s first economy and started modernizing its bureaucracy about 10 years. The government introduced a new identity card and started to think about more ways to control its population and the cashless idea came up.

The more the society was controlled, the more it was attractive to banks and dematerialized payment companies rapidly saw an opportunity for business. In 2014, President Goodluck Jonathan announced to become the first recipient of Nigeria’s new national biometric ID card. Since then, the card has been issued to 13 million Nigerians as part of a pilot project producing a National Identity Management System (NIMS). The idea is to consolidate data from the different government agencies into one single card (health insurance, tax information, driver licence, a payment method…). In a country of 168.2 millions, the tender was interesting. MasterCard got the lucrative business which today seems to have switched to a more controlling and repressive society. Besides the cashless society, corruption remains a major issue in Nigeria and Transparency International has credited it to the rise of the terror of Boko Haram.

Many NGOs have raised concerns about the over-controlling measures taken by the government which promoted the cashless transition. Journalists are being arrested just because their IDs are tracked and their way of life rings bells on investigations that they ‘shouldn’t be leading’.

‘Centralizing and combining government databases makes it easy to link together pieces of information to see a near complete picture of someone’s life’ said Privacy International legal officer, Anna Crowe (1). ‘This type of capability is extremely invasive (…) the crucial issue is to put in place safeguards that guarantee data protection are being respected, such as only using data for the purposes for which it was collected’, she added.

But the concerns rapidly grew beyond the card itself. Many wondered why MasterCard was involved and how much the company would benefit from it. It is scary for many that the project combines a civil national reform with a commercial initiative. The new cards aren’t just a proof of identity for Nigerian nationals, it also carries MasterCard’s logo on the back and is linked to the Access Bank. ‘National ID schemes can prove problematic in many respects, but commercialization of such information asks serious question (…) what does MasterCard and the bank’s involvement entail? How can Nigerians be confident that their right to privacy is being upheld?’, Crowe asked.

In other countries going cashless, the questions are the same. India is today facing one of its biggest crisis of the past decades as the government’s move to become cashless has created chaos in the streets. Banknotes were announced to be no longer valid to supposedly fight criminality but it started a massive wave of Indians rushing to banks and ATMs to try to withdraw new money. India, as well as Nigeria, represents a really profitable market for payment companies. But how valuable is our privacy?

In a society where you can do everything with a card, privacy is mostly valuable to the ones who collect the data, in this case governments and banks. Now, if this society happens to be cashless, meaning that cash has disappeared or is no longer allowed; you have no other option than going through a bank, an e-wallet, or any other dematerialize payment for every transaction you make. You aren’t the first one to have access to your money, when you receive your monthly ‘check’ your bank is the first one to have that money available. Even Orwell in his worst nightmares scenarios didn’t think about that.

We may think that today, these preoccupations remain in countries far away from home, after all, our societies don’t have much in common with India or Nigeria… well, you might be surprised. In the past years, countries like Sweden or Denmark have been starting to envision a fully cashless transition within the next decade. And regardless of the level of corruption of a government, or the overall acceptation of such policies, the concerns remain the same. Tomorrow Swedes could potentially be tracked and monitored in every transaction they make. Many have realized it wasn’t only a technological revolution but that their freedom is also at stake. How long before the idea spreads to the United States or to western Europe?

  1. http://www.privacyorg

Categories: Economy & Finance

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