Why we should keep hold of cash

A cashless society could lead to a surveillance state.

John Glynn

Topics Politics UK USA World

Over the past 20 years, our spending behaviour has changed dramatically. For many of us, physical currency is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

In 2017, following an exponential growth in contactless transactions, card payments overtook cash payments in the UK for the first time. In northern Europe, according to the Financial Times, as few as one in five payments are made in cash, with approximately one in five Swedes claiming they never withdraw cash at all.

There are even calls for society to go fully cashless. A recent essay for the Fintech Times extolls the benefits of a cashless society. These include not only increased convenience but also the end of cash-based criminal activity. No longer will we have to worry about pickpockets and bank robbers. Even if a card is stolen, it can be blocked immediately. A cashless society is a safer society, it is claimed.

However, abandoning cash altogether brings with it some serious risks. Experts warn that a cashless society handicaps those who are poor or in debt. Additionally, a cashless future could also lead to greater levels of financial abuse, where vulnerable people are at risk of having their finances controlled by an abuser. Millions of people, especially the elderly, are already struggling to participate in our digital society as it is. Sleepwalking towards a cashless economy will inevitably leave many behind. Earlier this year, New Jersey and Philadelphia have introduced laws banning cashless shops and restaurants across the state for this reason.

According to the Access to Cash Review, an independent report on the future of cash, well over a third of the UK population, around 25million people, would struggle without cash. The report warns that millions could face ‘increased risks of isolation, exploitation, debt and rising costs’ in a cashless society. And when it comes to safety, it points out that cashless forms of payment might protect us from pickpockets, but our access to finance could easily be disrupted by failures in IT or by cyberattacks.

Most disturbingly, a cashless society could quickly become a surveillance society. Take Hong Kong, where many people rely on a contactless smart card called an Octopus card to pay for everything from city travel to retail purchases. The convenience is, of course, extremely seductive. But that convenience comes at a cost. During the recent extradition-bill protests, very few used their Octopus card to get around the city. Why? Because they were worried that government or the police could easily view the central database of Octopus transactions to identify the protesters. If these protests were to take place in a future, cashless society, the protesters would be at a much greater risk.

And it’s not just the government we should be concerned about. The data from our cashless transactions hands a great deal of information about us to unaccountable corporations and banks. Everyday activities, like the purchasing of gifts and small private payments, become features fed into an algorithm. Cash, on the other hand, offers us a degree of privacy and anonymity.

Let’s not give up cash too quickly.

John Glynn is a writer.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK USA World


Lauren Stuart

28th July 2019 at 5:39 pm

If there is no cash, there is then nothing to stop governments raising taxes to unacceptable levels. At present the cash economy acts as a safety valve – if taxes are too high, more people use the cash economy. As taxes are reduced, there is less incentive to do so.
Without that release, taxes would be jacked up to unsustainable levels. Those who work in the cash economy are freedom fighters for the rest of us.

Rick Sareen

22nd July 2019 at 4:57 pm

Cleaners, beggars, anyone who gets tips, charity collectors, drug dealers.

Lots of people will/are affected. It’s not difficult to see what strata of society this hurts….

Jerry Owen

22nd July 2019 at 2:00 pm

Timely article. the banks are closing down , my nearest branch is seven miles away.
The banks are closing/selling off their property and making more money at the expense of us account holders as we are inconvenienced. I rarely get paid by cheque but when I do it may take me several weeks to bank it as I’m not prepared to make a special trip. They were looking to abolish cheques some 20 years ago, but the outrage put the banks off, it will no doubt resurface, but as so few use them it will go through opposed by few people.
The nonsense about a cashless society hindering cash laundering and avoiding the taxman is bogus. There are laws in place for this illegal activity, and the average citizen should not be inconvenienced because of criminal activity.
My biggest worry as has been pointed out already is that ‘if your face doesn’t fit ‘ you may find that you are unable to spend your money on legal activities, crowd funding is one recent example.
On a more practical level, cash in your hand is cash understood , we know how long it took to earn it, taking cash out of your wallet gives you a second opportunity to evaluate if you actually need/want to make that purchase.
The banks cannot charge you for cash you hold but they will charge you for holding your money, it’s a win win for them.

David Goldsmith

22nd July 2019 at 10:02 am

One big advantage of the cashless society is that it will open the posibility of central banks using negative interest rates, which would give them much more control. At the moment this would be difficult as, if the banks started charging customers to look after their money, the customers would withdraw it as cash and keep it under the bed.
There are other advantages: it stops individuals avoiding taxes; it will enhance the financial insttutions’ monopoly on money laundering; it stops individuals avoiding giving a slice of each transaction to the banks; it stops individuals avoiding generating data so that a few multinationals might take advantage. There are really no losers, well, none that matter.

Hana Jinks

22nd July 2019 at 12:54 pm


Gareth Hart

22nd July 2019 at 9:18 am

Also to add in recent months, the numerous examples of payment processors and crowdfunding platforms banning individuals critical of Islam, whose politics (are perceived to) range from centrist to conservative to far-right, are deemed to hold ‘problematic views’ or a threat to their business from being able to take or make payments. A small cabal of tech firms and private financial institutions becoming the only ways to make payments with the potential for a privatised social credit system terrifies me, not because I have something to hide but because of the life changing power this cabal could hold over any individual like a Sword of Damocles if you are perceived to step out of line at any moment.

Hana Jinks

22nd July 2019 at 12:53 pm

They’re gonna do it to Christians eventually.

mister wallace

22nd July 2019 at 7:55 am

I use credit cards to pay for most things and then just pay the consolidated bill at the end of the billing period. However just to keep them on their toes I pay by cheque from one bank to another. Cheques are one of the oldest cons by banks; they say it takes three business days to clear a cheque but the funds disappear from the account at the other bank that evening. No three days about that con. As far as everything on my phone or online I am constantly pestered by gummint to open accounts because it’s so much easier. Yes, for gummint to track us. I never get a response when I say “You want me to have an internet account or just use emails? Then you pay for my monthly connection.”

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