An elegy for cash: the technology we might never replace - MIT Technology Review
This is a feature of physical cash that payment cards and apps do not have: freedom. Called “bearer instruments,” banknotes and coins are presumed to be owned by whoever holds them. We can use them to transact with another person without a third party getting in the way. Companies cannot build advertising profiles or credit ratings out of our data, and governments cannot track our spending or our movements. And while a credit card can be declined and a check mislaid, handing over money works every time, instantly.
We shouldn’t take this freedom for granted. Much of our commerce now happens online. It relies on banks and financial technology companies to serve as middlemen. Transactions are going digital in the physical world, too: electronic payment tools, from debit cards to Apple Pay to Alipay, are increasingly replacing cash. While notes and coins remain popular in many countries, including the US, Japan, and Germany, in others they are nearing obsolescence.
This trend has civil liberties groups worried. Without cash, there is “no chance for the kind of dignity-preserving privacy that undergirds an open society,” writes Jerry Brito, executive director of Coin Center, a policy advocacy group based in Washington, DC. In a recent report, Brito contends that we must “develop and foster electronic cash” that is as private as physical cash and doesn’t require permission to use.
The central question is who will develop and control the electronic payment systems of the future. Most of the existing ones, like Alipay, Zelle, PayPal, Venmo, and Kenya’s M-Pesa, are run by private firms. Afraid of leaving payments solely in their hands, many governments are looking to develop some sort of electronic stand-in for notes and coins. Meanwhile, advocates of stateless, ownerless cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin say they’re the only solution as surveillance-proof as cash—but can they be feasible at large scales?
We tend to take it for granted that new technologies work better than old ones—safer, faster, more accurate, more efficient, more convenient. Purists may extol the virtues of vinyl records, but nobody can dispute that a digital music collection is easier to carry and sounds almost exactly as good. Cash is a paradox—a technology thousands of years old that may just prove impossible to re-create in a more advanced form.
That’s why it would be a problem if Sweden were to go completely “cashless,” Söderberg says. He and his colleagues fear that if people lose the option to convert their bank money to government money at will and use it to pay for whatever they need, they might start to lose trust in the whole money system. A further worry is that if the private sector is left to dominate digital payments, people who can’t or won’t use these systems could be shut out of the economy.
This is fast becoming more than just a thought experiment in Sweden. Nearly everyone there uses a mobile app called Swish to pay for things. Economists have estimated that retailers in Sweden could completely stop accepting cash by 2023.
Creating an electronic version of Sweden’s sovereign currency—an “e-krona”—could mitigate these problems, Söderberg says. If the central bank were to issue digital money, it would design it to be a public good, not a profit-making product for a corporation. “Easily accessible, simple and user-friendly versions could be developed for those who currently have difficulty with digital technology,” the bank asserted in a November report covering Sweden’s payment landscape.
The Riksbank plans to develop and test an e-krona prototype. It has examined a number of technologies that might underlie it, including cryptocurrency systems like Bitcoin. But the central bank has also called on the Swedish government to lead a broad public inquiry into whether such a system should ever go live. “In the end, this decision is too big for a central bank alone, at least in the Swedish context,” Söderberg says.
Cash is already dying out on its own in China, thanks to Alipay and WeChat, the QR-code-based apps that have become ubiquitous in just a few years. It’s been estimated that mobile payments made up more than 80% of all payments in China in 2018, up from less than 20% in 2013.
It’s not clear how much access the government currently has to transaction data from WeChat Pay and Alipay. Once it issues a sovereign digital currency—which officials say will be compatible with those two services—it will likely have access to a lot more. Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC, told the New York Times in October that the system will give the PBOC “extraordinary power and visibility into the financial system, more than any central bank has today.”
With Bitcoin, although transactions are public, users don’t have to reveal who they really are; each person’s “address” on the public blockchain is just a random string of letters and numbers. But in recent years, law enforcement officials have grown skilled at combining public blockchain data with other clues to unmask people using cryptocurrencies for illicit purposes. Indeed, in a July blog post, Libra project head David Marcus argued that the currency would be a boon for law enforcement, since it would help “move more cash transactions—where a lot of illicit activities happen—to a digital network.”
Robleh Ali, a research scientist at MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative, says digital currency systems from central banks may need to be designed so that the government can “consciously blind itself” to the information. Something like that might be technically possible thanks to cutting-edge cryptographic tools like zero-knowledge proofs, which are used in systems like Zcash to shield blockchain transaction information from public view.
However, there’s no evidence that any governments are even thinking about deploying tools like this. And regardless, can any government—even Sweden’s—really be trusted to blind itself?
With no middleman like a bank attesting that a transaction took place, each transaction has to be validated by a majority of the nodes in a cryptocurrency’s network, which can number many thousands. But this requires an immense expenditure of computing power, and it’s the reason Bitcoin transactions can take more than an hour to settle.
A currency like Libra wouldn’t have this problem, because only a few authorized entities would be able to operate nodes. The trade-off is that its users wouldn’t be able to trust those entities to guarantee their privacy, any more than they can trust a bank, a government, or Facebook.
In summary, we have three avenues for the future of digital money, none of which offers the same mix of freedom and ease of use that characterizes cash. Private companies have an obvious incentive to monetize our data and pursue profits over public interest. Digital government money may still be used to track us, even by well-intentioned governments, and for less benign ones it’s a fantastic tool for surveillance. And cryptocurrency can prove useful when freedoms are at risk, but it likely won’t work at scale anytime soon, if ever.
How big a problem is this? That depends on where you live, how much you trust your government and your fellow citizens, and why you wish to use cash. And if you’d rather keep that to yourself, you’re in luck. For now.