As perhaps most now know, China is preparing a digital currency with which it intends to replace cash entirely, and other countries, including the US, are considering the idea. Conservatives and libertarians will shriek, pull their hair, and turn blue at the idea, perhaps with good reason—which doesn’t matter since it is going to happen anyway.
How would it work? Digital currencies have many interesting qualities, but here we will look only at a few relevant to this column. First, you download the app like any other. It gives you a QR code and requires a face scan and perhaps a fingerprint scan, so that only you can use your money. Second, details of every transaction are recorded: time, place, name, and amount of every payment., from whom to whom. Most people won’t care since most people don’t do anything illegal, which will facilitate acceptance.
What effects would it have? Many and astonishing. A universal digital currency, combined with cashlessness, would wipe out the illegal drug trade overnight. At street level, every speedball sold would be paid for by the addict to the corner dealer, with the time, place, amount, buyer, and seller being recorded. The pattern caused by a dealer’s making repeated sales would be easily detected by AI algorithms. When the street-level guy bought a new kilo or whatever from his own dealer, this would instantly be flagged. When Pedro of Mexico wanted to sell a large batch to DeShawn in Chicago, the deal would stand out like sanity in a Democratic administration. Getting around this would be extremely difficult if not (more likely) impossible.
Arrests would not be necessary. Freezing the dealer’s account would be sufficient. As they say in Asia in another context, no money, no honey. Political effects? The current mass incarceration of blacks for drug crime would cease, and the drug trade would cease to ravage black neighborhoods. Reflection will show that many kinds of crime would disappear.
Money laundering? You would have to explain how you got it in the first place but if a crooked bank, which may mean all of them, accepted huge deposits of mysterious origin, lights would flash and bells go ringadingding at watchdog agencies. If the central authority wondered why Willy Bill had suddenly gotten seven million bucks from someone else who could not explain where he got it, the bank could simply freeze the money until Willy Bill dropped in to explain.
This isn’t fantasy. The technology exists. It is in use. In China, eighty percent of transactions are by cellphone apps. The Chinese predict that they will have digital currency up and running for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Corruption? Many forms would become harder. When a congressman receives twenty times his annual salary from somebody working for Lockheed-Martin the road to Leavenworth would loom. Bribery would not be impossible, but harder to hide.
Another effect would be that the (encrypted) digital currency of one country would be independent of and opaque to other countries and thus secure against foreign (read American) meddling. This has begun to worry Washington. The city seems to have noted that China could pay Iran for oil in digital yuan, circumventing American sanctions. Many countries would like to get themselves out from under the American financial boot. Once the dijjywan becomes functional a rush to use it, probably in addition to the dollar, would not be surprising.
On a slightly different subject, note that a great deal of the annoyance and bureaucracy of modern life come from the use of different means of identifying ourselves. We carry credit cards, ID cards, library cards, passports, and suchlike. At airports we have to produce tickets and ID. We have driver’s licenses and scuba-certification cards. On and on.
All of this could be eliminated by a combination of reliable biometric identification (face-recognition, fingerprints, iris scan, what have you) and cloud storage. At the airport a face scan identifies you, checks to see that you have paid for a ticket to France, checks to see that you hold a valid passport, and you board your flight by simply walking aboard. At a restaurant you pay by saying, “Visa.” No cards, no forms to sign. Reliable biometric ID would also allow getting rid of keys, passwords, and the like since all these do really is to identify you.
Would all of this endanger privacy? Usually, no. For example, the software could ensure that no one could see your scuba cert except with your permission, that border enforcement could check your passport information and visas but no one else could, and so on.
However, the government could see anything it wanted. Exactly as the shrieking blue libertarians and conservatives say. When, whether, and to what extent this would matter to most of us can be debated, but it would assuredly be possible. Again, this is not Fred’s fevered imagination. All of the technology exists, right now.
But…how different is this from today’s America? Visa and your bank record every purchase you make with a credit card, time, place and amount. Gmail or Outlook saves all your emails. Every check you write, every deposit or withdrawal becomes a record. Your smartphone knows where it is and therefore, usually, where you are: In Mexico I say to my iPhone, “Hey Siri, where am I?” she knows exactly. Cell towers know within a fairly short radius where your phone is, usually with you, and time correlation can show who you spent time with. The sites you visit on the web go into data bases. If you have been visiting porn sites involving donkeys, Google, which is as much a part of government as Congress, knows it. If you have “Hey Siri” activated, and perhaps if you don’t, your phone is always listening. Amazon knows all your purchases and reading habits. (Incidentally, it disappears books those in charge don’t like. A book is equally gone regardless of whether the vanishment is done by Washington or a quasi-governmental tech company.)
It gets worse. Our television—I am inclined to say “telescreen”– has control by gesture, meaning that it has a camera, as well as voice control. In principle, it listens only when we use the remote to tell it to. In practice, who knows? We have two Alexa boxes in the house If we accidentally say “Alexa” in one room, the box two rooms away will come alive and ask what we want. Would—does—Jeff Bezos let the government use this facility? I don’t know. With shaky search warrants and bunkum about national security, what choice would he have?. And of corse cameras are everywhere.
Most of this is innocuous. Nobody will look at the Seven-Eleven video of me buying a six-pack of Tecate unless there is a robbery, which would not involve me. But the watchfulness is there, everywhere, all the time, if anyone wants to get at it
We seem to be getting the surveillance so many fear, but not the benefits.
Chronicles of a wild life in biker bars and the fleshpots of Bangkok, of years of solo hitchhiking across America, of a Southern boyhood of drag racing in old wrecks and guns and beer, of Marine Corps boot camp and Moon’s strange church, of scuba diving the deep walls of the Caribbean and cave diving in Mexico, of life on staff at Soldier of Fortune magazine and nine years as police reporter for the Washington Times in the weird, sad, and often unbelievable urban Petri dishes of the big cities. Politically incorrect and evilly funny, Fred takes no prisoners. He skews with murderous wit things he doesn’t like, which are many: pols, talking heads, officious do-gooders. He has a soft spot for things he does like, such as dogs, drunks, bar girls, and ambulance crews, of all of which he has known many. His work has appeared in Playboy, Harper’s, the Washington Post magazine an op-ed pages, and suchlike stations of the literary cross.
Write Fred at [email protected]. Put the letters pdq anywhere in the subject line to avoid autodeletion. All read, answer not assured due to volume.