Privacy in a Cashless Society

Denmark is quickly approaching the point where cash might no longer be necessary. Legislators recently proposed a law Mobile paymentthat would allow some retailers to only accept digital payments via a credit card or mobile device. If it passes, it’s likely that many brick-and-mortar shops will gladly free themselves from the burden of paper and metal money. Some citizens, on the other hand, are worried about the trackability of non-cash transactions.

This trend is not especially new. Already a third of Danes use MobilePay, an app created by the nation’s largest bank, for making transactions. One report even said that in 2012, 84% of Danish transactions took place with credit cards. Several other European countries have also expressed a desire to do away with cash. For example, in Sweden’s larger cities, the bus systems already restrict payments to digital forms like credit cards and prepaid passes.

Some people are worried about how their privacy will hold up in a cashless society. Right now, paper money is often used as a way to avoid tracking. Records are not essential for cash transactions because they involve the transfer of physical objects. With relative certainty, we can always know who owns the money because we can see who holds the actual paper bills.

Digital money, however, has to be treated differently. Banks and payment processors almost always attach an identity to artificial transactions. In our legacy financial system, that’s the only way to ensure that money doesn’t get lost, duplicated, or misdirected. Many argue that the authorities would have a field day with this kind of information. Electronic databases are extremely easy to search, analyze, and preserve, so the government could theoretically watch where all of our money goes.

Privacy is definitely a legitimate concern, but it’s important to remember that digital transactions do have some serious benefits for businesses.

close up of man counting money and making notesPhysical money is notoriously difficult and expensive (and even unhealthy) to handle, which I can illustrate with a personal anecdote. Like many others, I spent a decent portion of my teenage years working in a fast food restaurant and I remember muttering all the time about how annoying cash was. Without exaggerating, I can say that it often took five to ten times longer to sort bills and count change than it did to swipe a card. That’s a huge factor when you’re trying to serve 120 cars in an hour and it’s only a fraction of the full cost. The owner of the restaurant also had to pay the managers to count money drawers (and the entire safe) several times a day. Then there’s the cost of having bills and heavy change delivered and picked up by armored trucks, and how about touching dirty paper while serving food!

Daniel Brown is the editor-in-chief of You, Me, and BTC.  He’s also the “Everything Elf” at Liberty.me.

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