Jack J. Miller

The Perils Of A Society Gone Cashless

22nd July 2023

Note: This is a repost of an article originally published on my previous domain, jorvo.net.

Society is hastily moving towards digital payment systems as many consumers abandon cash in pursuit of convenience and businesses abandon it so as to reduce costs. This transition has been taking place, however, with little regard for its very real negative repercussions. An assessment of the issue that looks beyond convenience and cost-cutting strongly suggests that a society that abandons cash will not simply introduce new problems but will intensify pre-existing ones.

Human trafficking victims will suffer

Around 136,000 people were trafficked in the UK in 2018. A substantial portion of those trafficked are women trapped inside the sex industry by gangs of violent men. Upon trafficking their victims into the UK, traffickers will often show photographs of the victim's family back home in a threat of violence against them in case they refuse to comply. To further cement their control, traffickers will take from their victims any photographic ID such as passports so that their victims become trapped in a country foreign to them where they have no identifying documents and no certain legal right to be there.

The issue of human trafficking may seem rather unrelated to the question of cashless society but the reality is that in a cashless society both current and former victims of all forms of trafficking would find themselves in an even more perilous situation. To own a card, one must have a bank account, and to have a bank account, one must have legal authorisation to be in the country. In a cashless society, those without this authorisation would be locked out of the economy entirely. This would include a large number of those trafficked.

Consider the circumstances of women exploited in the prostitution industry who are not legally authorised to be in the country. Those who are able to find a way out of the inhumane industry already face many hurdles that they may or may not be able to overcome. It can at least be said though that if they are provided with a physical and financial escape then they may be able to scrape by on the outside free from the shackles of the industry. Sadly, in a cashless society, not even this would be possible. Such prostituted women in a cashless society who do see an escape in sight would know that without ID and without legal stay they would be unable to carry out the transactions needed to survive. They would thus be further pressurised into remaining in their present state of being sexually exploited. In other words, by insisting that only those with bank accounts are permitted to participate in our economy, we are assisting pimps by granting them greater control over their victims. This is not something we should ever be facilitating.

The relatives of coercive individuals will suffer

Abusive individuals who control the people around them will benefit from the establishment of a cashless society at the expense of their victims. Consider the circumstances of a woman with a violent husband seeking to extend the purview of his bridal control beyond the home. In a society that has gone totally cashless, this regrettably common situation would be worsened by the fact that this abusive husband may acquire total knowledge of his wife's financial transactions. All he has to do is demand access to her banking app from where he may monitor her activity.

This is not a harmonious arrangement warranted in the name of marriage ― a caring husband looking out for the best interests of his wife ― but rather a dangerous arrangement that further traps women inside abusive marriages. With her husband able to make himself aware of any transactions she performs, he can enforce maximal control over her by identifying and thwarting any attempts she makes to subvert his tyranny. Any legal services, for example, that this woman employs will be made visible in her banking record. Visits to friends that require a bus journey would also be indicated through the purchase of the ticket. She would not even be able to create a new bank account to be used for secret transactions because this would require an initial transfer of money which would also be visible to her spouse.

These issues could be alleviated if she still had the option of using cash. For the society around her to deny her that device would therefore not be an inconsequential act — it would be unethical.

Political refugees will suffer

When political dissidents granted refuge in our country are forced to use bank cards in their daily lives they are needlessly being placed at greater risk. Creating digital records of their financial lives makes them more vulnerable to espionage carried out by the governments targeting them. Just a small number of these records, if acquired by their government, could be enough to ascertain sensitive intelligence such as where they work, where they live, and who they're acquainted with. This information is severely compromising.

The targeting of Chinese dissidents in this and other countries by the Chinese Communist Party is well reported. The Party recently, for example, established “service stations” across Europe, including the UK, from which Party employees could effectively work as police officers policing Chinese residents living outside of China. The establishment of these stations has been part of a wider effort by the Chinese authorities to coerce dissidents into returning to China so that legal proceedings can be brought against them.

In addition to sending officials to foreign countries to police our Chinese compatriots, the Chinese authorities also employ regular Chinese individuals sympathetic to the regime to identify those among them who aren't. Digital payment systems could one day become a key tool for use by the authorities in their efforts to surveil Chinese dissidents here. Digital payments systems are utilised by the Chinese authorities to surveil the population in China and it would be foolish to believe that they wouldn't exploit them similarly here if given the opportunity.

So how could digital payments systems be hijacked as such a tool? Software could be developed by the Chinese authorities for use during a transaction. If promoted to and adopted by members of the Chinese diaspora, this software could communicate back to servers in China the details of each transaction it oversees. This would enable the Chinese authorities to pinpoint the location of the dissidents that they wish to target in the UK when those dissidents walk into a shop and make a purchase using a machine with this software running on it.

Political refugees shouldn't be forced by society to use such risky systems which they have no way of auditing. Cash offers political refugees greater security because no such surveillance could be inserted into a cash transaction. To deny then the inherent privacy of cash to this targeted group is a betrayal. It is a neglect of our duty of care which is being neglected for no good reason.

Future generations will suffer

Digital records of every transaction can be and have been used by governments and corporations to target and control innocent people. One may view this as a problem that need only be worried about in certain foreign countries but this is a naïve (and rather arrogant) view. Those that hold this view will often retort that “you shouldn't be afraid if you have nothing to hide”. Such a retort, however, fails to recognise a very simple fact.

Just because you have nothing to hide at the moment, it does not mean that you will never have anything to hide in the future. Activities that you are free to partake in without legal threat in today's world may become criminal in tomorrow's. A tightening of copyright laws; restrictions on the sale of dangerous items in the name of tackling violent crime; an expansion of laws restricting political action: these are all perfectly foreseeable developments. In the event of any of them manifesting, you could very quickly find yourself faced with legal threat for your purchase in the future of second-hand books, or a camping knife, or your donation to a political or charitable organisation that the government deems problematic. All of this activity would be instantly observable by the government if it granted itself the legal authority to monitor our banking records. At that stage, your “convenient” digital payment system which you were comfortable using in the past because you had nothing to hide is now being used as a weapon preventing you and your children from engaging in the world in ways you long took for granted.

To turn our society into a cashless society would demand us to assume that the political freedoms enjoyed by us today will be preserved for the rest of eternity. Such an assumption is, of course, absurd. So why are we resting the freedom and security of future generations on such an improbability?

In truth, that's not the right question to ask; it presupposes that these issues have actually been considered in the first place. As has been alluded to, there are only two issues that have been considered: the issues of convenience and financial cost-cutting.

It is often said that the digitisation of transactions will aid the authorities in tackling crime and that that must be a good thing, but in a society gone cashless organised criminals would not be so stupid as to go about breaking the law using their debit cards. Instead, they would use private cryptocurrencies. What this means is that regular citizens would find themselves coerced into using a financial surveillance system defended in the name of tracking criminals that aren't even using it.

If we recognise that governments seeking to restrict perfectly justifiable activities are sure to arise, then we today should not be structuring our world in a way that will aid those future governments in their overreaching endeavours. A society in which everyday transactions are anonymised through the preservation of cash is a society that governments and corporations cannot control with an iron fist.

If future generations are likely to suffer unwarranted restrictions as a result of our abandonment of cash, then to abandon cash is not our decision to make. We were all bestowed with certain freedoms by courageous generations that came before us and so we now have a duty to ensure that those freedoms can be passed on to the generations that follow.

Serious questions need to be asked

The advocates of cashless society do not have any solutions to these issues because the rationale that underlies their advocacy was not built with the groups affected by them in mind. Cashless society is promoted with the promises of convenience and cost-cutting with a total disregard for the societal ramifications which, like all major structural changes, it will inevitably have.

We need to ask ourselves some important questions: How exactly would a person trafficked into this country without legal authorisation to be here go about opening a bank account? Do abuse victims have something to gain or something to lose as a result of their abusive spouses gaining greater view of their activities outside the home? Is it right that a political refugee seeking to maintain a level of privacy is forced by businesses to use a system that compromises them? And how can we be so sure that future generations will live in a world where the abandonment of cash has been a historical development of no consequence? When we engage with these questions honestly, it becomes clear that even though the establishment of a cashless society may be of little consequence to many of us it is likely to have very harmful repercussions for others living both now and in the future.

Our duty

So what should we do? If you are a consumer then please use cash wherever possible. Refuse, in reason, to patronise businesses that reject your cash and let them know that you are doing so because of their decision. Kindly share with them one of the many reasons that the abandonment of cash is not the benign decision it may appear to be and perhaps even share with them this essay or any of the other explorations of the topic included in Appendix A. Sign the petitions listed in Appendix B and, most importantly, write to your political representatives to share with them your objections to the establishment of a cashless society and urge them to push for laws that mandate that businesses accept cash.

If you are a business owner, then take that same action. Most importantly though, continue to accept cash. If you have already stopped accepting it, then please return to the days when you did. As a business owner you can have an even greater impact resisting the establishment of a cashless society.

Appendix A - Related coverage

Appendix B - Petitions