According to Gladstein, a healthy democracy needs financial privacy. If all our behaviours and all our movements are tracked, this can damage democracy in a fatal way. Bank statements say more about what we are doing than our social media accounts or our emails.
Trade-offs are made between convenience and speed versus privacy and freedom. In China today, hundreds of millions of people are currently undergoing the world’s largest social engineering experiment. It is channeled through social media such as WeChat which allows users to shop, message friends, plan their day etc. But what is given up when we trade off our privacy for convenience and speed?
This is heading towards a gigantic social engineering experiment called social credit. The intention behind this is that all citizens will be rated, not only on financial history and behaviour but also on such things as friends, ethnicity, political beliefs, sexual preferences. These ratings will determine your financial freedom, the loans you can obtain, the internet you can get or the schools your children can attend. Basically, your financial abilities will be tied to your patriotism.
One large Chinese city has introduced debt shaming: WeChat displays users who are debtors and have poor credit. Interacting with these people will make your credit go down as well.
The Chinese government is laying the ground work for the digital yuan, which will potentially launch in 2020. The objective is to turn the yuan into the dominant world currency, says Gladstein. This central bank digital currency would enable the government to have real-time direct access to people’s data, without using intermediaries such as WeChat or AliPay. This is the dystopic reality envisioned by Orwell. In October, Mark Zuckerberg CEO of Facebook warned US Congress that blocking Facebook’s Libra digital currency project would boost China’s digital currency ambitions.
For Gladstein, the world is becoming increasingly cashless as corporations and governments are insisting that for security reasons, they need to know everything about us. He sees Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies as an alternative as they enable digital transactions without a third-party intermediary who has the ability to freeze funds, capture data, practice surveillance.
However, far from disappearing, cash is continuing to grow. And the anonymity of cash is becoming a critical feature in a number of situations across the world.
In Hong Kong, protesters have been switching back to cash to purchase public transportation tickets and SIM cards to avoid being tracked by the government.
In India, internet and text messaging services were suspended by government’s order in parts of New Delhi, in the wake of protests against a new citizenship law seen as discriminating against Muslims.
In the US, the New York Times Privacy Project obtained a file containing the movements of tens of millions of people over several months, based on mobile phone geolocalisation. The journalists were able to identify visitors at the Playboy mansion, movements of military officials with security clearances as well as high-powered lawyers.
The journalists conclude: “We are living in the world’s most advanced surveillance system. This system wasn’t created deliberately. It was built through the interplay of technological advancement and the profit motive. It was built to make money. The greatest trick technology companies ever played was persuading society to surveil itself.”
In her essay, Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff quotes Hal Varian, the Chief Economist: “Nowadays there is a computer in virtually every transaction… now that they are available these computers have several other uses.” One of these other uses is data extraction and analysis.