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Not ready for a cashless society





The University of Otago's Holger Regenbrecht looks at the privacy, economic and democratic implications of going cashless

It might look paradoxical if an information scientist calls for keeping tangible, physical cash and not to go digital with a cashless society (yet). But I do!

Shops and cafes at the University of Otago’s Dunedin campus are trialling cashless, electronic payments in an experiment until the end of the year. No cash is accepted for the “benefits for customers and the university”. While there is little doubt that electronic payments can be more convenient, hygienic, and efficient than their tangible counterparts, going cashless comes at a price for privacy, economic power, and democracy at large.

Paying for goods and services with bills and coins is mostly an anonymous transaction—practically only people involved in the immediate transaction know about the details. If I want to reveal more details to third parties, then I can join loyalty programmes; voluntarily. When paying cashless—by means of EFTPOS, credit card, mobile phone pay, and online pay—I am revealing my shopping behaviour to others, implicitly or explicitly agreeing to their terms and conditions, sometimes outside of New Zealand’s legal frameworks. This is a largely opaque process and the current Privacy Act (1993) does not really protect us appropriately.

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The cashless society from an ethical point of view

The debate about the move towards a cashless society has been at the center of the scene for several years, now. Various angles have been taken by economists, politicians, banking institutions and sociologists. Beyond the technicalities of the debate, lies the question of freedom, of inter-citizen solidarity and of governmental responsibility. The debate cannot remain in the hands of financial specialists, it is first and foremost an ethical, political and societal issue.










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