For years, we have debated privacy versus identity. I am all for privacy, but governments are all for identification. If we can identify you, we can tax you. If you are private, you’re off the grid. It’s a balance. The most private way to deal with money is with cash. Cash can be transacted off the grid. You cannot tax a cash transaction, unless it is identified. There’s the rub: can the government track, trace and identify what you are transacting?
We’ve had this discussion often, especially with reference to cryptocurrencies, as the idea is to build digital cash. Digital cash is off-grid. True digital cash cannot be tracked or traced. Digital cash? Well, it’s already here.
The thing is whether privacy or, to be more exact, anonymity is a good thing. Why do you want to be off-grid? And how far can you be off-grid in this age of social media and google tracking?
Sit back and have a think. What would happen if you deleted your digital footprint to be off-grid? What things could you do? You couldn’t travel – you need a passport for that; you couldn’t drive – you need a license for that; you couldn’t pay for anything digitally – you need an account for that (although MoIP might change that); and so it goes on.
The reason for the construct of our world, as it is, is to ensure that your every action can be tracked, traced and taxed. If you want true anonymity or privacy, then you need to be more radical.
This dilemma is best illustrated by one of my fave films Enemy of the State. If you haven’t seen it, Will Smith becomes a target of the NSA when he receives key evidence to a politically motivated crime. The next thing is that his every movement becomes digitally tracked and traced. A more recent film, Eye in the Sky, shows an even more lethal aspect of digital tracking and tracing. There are many, but that's because the entertainment industry is always focused upon the dark side of technological innovation. From The Terminator to Social Murderer, and from Black Mirror to Capture, television and Hollywood play on our fears of technology all the time.
Is technology a good or bad thing?
Well, let’s look at the case.
On the plus side, we have a global network of communication and connectivitiy. We no longer need to go to a store to buy stuff. We can stream entertainment 24*7. We never have to go to a bank branch anymore. We can live lives with non-stop interactivity.
On the down side, we have identities that can be stolen and abused, possibly even destroying lives. We are all identifiable, unless we use a burner phone. We get frustrated when the technology doesn’t work. We are slaves to the machine.
You can choose your view. My view is that technology has inordinately improved our lives, but I do remember a specific comment made to me many years ago when I was presenting in Eastern Europe. I presented the case for a digital identity and one person in the audience replied: we used to have to use identity documents; we are not keen on this idea.
Whether you are keen on this idea or not, it is inevitable that you will never have true privacy, particularly in today’s digitised world. What you need to remember however is that there is only so much bandwidth in government departments to keep up with all that data. In other words, only the greatest miscreants will get tracked and traced. If you’re only doing small beans stuff, they probably can’t find you.
Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...