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Should we pay attention to ethics and personal rights in Cashless Economies?


It is no longer easy to find an ATM or a bank branch nearby, government agencies are pushing for bills and coins to be abandoned, and an active shift to cryptocurrencies is making cash seem outdated. Some even go as far as calling cash ‘a curse’. Is this form of payment really no longer relevant? Let's figure it out.




Cashless payments are progressing in leaps and bounds: for example, India has arranged its own ‘cash overhaul’, introducing a large ban on most bills, just a several years ago. As a result, the share of cashless payments jumped by over 30% in just three years, astonishing everyone and creating a pile of problems for those who have troubles stepping into the new digital world. Other countries show a slightly slower, but still steady growth. We are rapidly moving into a new future, and, when we arrive, we will not be able to return: practice shows that what has been forgotten once, stays forgotten forever.
 
With this in mind, it’s better to consider every aspect of what’s proposed to us. There are several major agitators behind the call to ditch cash - such as governments, cryptocurrency advocates, and banks and fintech companies - each with their own case for a cashless future. Their debate often leaves many underlying concerns unvoiced, even though they are already having a significant impact on the modern world and directly on us.
 
Right to stay anonymous
 
Let's start with ideas resting on basic human rights, such as freedom and the right to privacy. There is a real war already going on for your personal data: government bureaus and banking services are monitoring your transactions for possible violations, and stores are trying their best to figure your habits and preferences based on your purchases.
 
Even cryptocurrencies cannot be called completely anonymous: in fact, popular blockchain projects like Bitcoin and Ethereum are pseudo-incognito. This means that the owner of an address is unknown by default. However, as soon as the user somehow reveals their identity, for example, uses an exchange with mandatory verification to withdraw funds, the transactions can be monitored. Other wallets belonging to the user will be found in the same way, because coins are normally sent between them several times.
 
It turns out that your every transaction, be it in traditional currency or crypto coins, is watched by thousands of eyes. Here, privacy becomes more of an imagined concept, but can freedom of social and political life naturally exist and be recognized without respect for it? Life in society has taught us to accept politeness as the only natural way of communication. The same applies to the relationship between those who manages finances and citizens.
 
Unlawful interference in a person's private affairs is impolite and does not command respect. If an organization has no compelling reason to ignore a citizen's need for privacy, it appears to be saying, "I am only interested in my own profit, and your interests are not worthy of my attention." For now, we have an escape door in the form of cash; however, as we are heading into the new future, this door is slowly closing.
 
Scammers and offliners
 
It is not only official institutions that are interested in profit. “Some of the best entrepreneurs out there are scammers,” says Mark Steward, the UK financial watchdog’s director of enforcement, and this statement is hard to reject. Fraudsters use different approaches, and employ psychological techniques and the latest technologies. As a result, the amount of bank frauds is growing rapidly around the world, hitting record highs during the pandemic shift to online. In this situation, is it really feasible to convert all funds and savings into something that can be stolen easily?
 
On top of that, there is an unobvious, but still important question: this is the availability of e-finances. A cashless society cannot function without the Internet, and, despite the fact that we already take our online presence for granted, no one is safe from disconnection. Even in developed areas, access to the Web can be interrupted due to a simple mistake or something more serious: for example, dozens of people during the recent floods in Germany were left without connection and without access to their Internet bank. For such cases, experts advise keeping a bundle of banknotes in reserve, but in a cashless society, we are unlikely to be able to get ready for a possible disaster in this way.
 
A bridge to social inclusion
 
Speaking of Internet availability, digital economy promoters often forget about those who do not have access to it. Paradoxically, the digital proliferation only increases the problem: those who have access to the network readily argue in favor of cashless. Thanks to the Internet, they are heard everywhere: write a short blog article or leave a comment, and the whole world will hear your voice. But what about those who cannot speak up? They are inaudible: they cannot tweet about their problems, and simply protesting what is causing them inconvenience and financial hardship becomes a challenge.
 
As of January 2021, more than 40% of the worldwide population, i.e. over 4 billion people, had no access to the Internet. Above, we have already talked about the inconvenience even a temporary disconnection from the Web creates, and it does not take much imagination to think about difficulties of offline financial management in a digital society.
 
Some have already realized this: for example, Philadelphia, USA, has already introduced a ban on fully cashless stores, forcing all business to accept bills and coins as an alternative means of payment. The initiative is aimed not only at those who do not have access to the Internet, but also at middle- and low-income citizens. Some of them simply cannot afford banking services, and the government considered it unfair that they would have to pay extra price just to feed banks and fintech companies: “This is where people have to stand up and say, ‘Look, there are some of us who don’t have the political power but who still need to operate in cash’”, says Mehrsa Baradaran of the University of Georgia Law School. Surprisingly, the ordinance was widely supported even by those who widely and seamlessly use cashless services, and this additionally proves the essential nature of minted and printed money for truly fair social inclusion.  
 
In general, the cash-free world promises many advantages; we are told about it at every corner. At the same time, it turns out that no less important, and often even more sensitive moments are hushed up for various reasons. As a result, we have no opportunity to prepare for possible problems that are bound to manifest themselves in case we complete our shift into the e-money era. Fortunately, we still have time to make an informed choice and decide whether we are ready to completely abandon the cash, which is still an integral part of our lives.










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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