A recent article article advocated for a cashless America on the grounds that it would reduce street crime. In fact, a 2014 study found a causal relationship between welfare recipients receiving benefits in cash and crime in poor neighborhoods. The newly implemented Electronic Benefits System allowed welfare recipients to keep their benefits on a debit card, therefore negatively affecting the interest criminals had in attacking them on payday.
Although criminals might be less inclined to commit assaults or burglaries where there is no immediate compensation, that does not mean that crime will necessarily decline with the disappearance of cash. On the contrary, it might just become more difficult to detect while causing greater damage. For instance, a Columbia University student was charged for drug-related offences – including buying and selling narcotics – without ever using a greenback. All transactions were carried out through Venmo, a person-to-person payment app.
But the risks related to cashless societies are not simply limited to crime: they extend to issues of equality, opportunity and justice. A cashless society “promises a world of limitation, control, and surveillance, which the poorest Americans already have in abundance”.
In a cashless society, information replaces cash. Censorship and surveillance usually follow, whether it is implemented voluntarily by payment service providers or imposed by the state. “Where money becomes a series of signals, it can be censored: where money becomes information, it will inform on you.” In the United States, concrete examples are proving that the risks are real and that they can too easily be concealed behind seemingly innocent and probably well-intentioned initiatives.
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