Today’s technology puts us all in a difficult position. How much does Facebook know about you, and what do they do with that information? Your mobile phone company probably knows your whereabouts 24/7 – and sells that information to brokers. What does Google know about your health or your politics? What about the ubiquity of security cameras on telephone poles, buildings, etc.? Combined with facial recognition, nearly every place you go is recorded for posterity.
The IRS Commissioner Charles P. Rettig and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen are pushing for a provision in the $3.5 billion “Build Back Better” bill that will have banks provide all transaction data on any bank account with over a $600 balance or $600 in transactions over the course of a year. The ability to even consider surveillance on this scale is only possible because of Moore’s law and the incredible cost reduction of data collection and management over the last few decades. This type of oversight, no matter its good intention to “make sure that everyone pays their fair share of taxes,” is a blatant violation of our Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure (which requires probable cause before a search may be conducted). Apparently, the IRS Commissioner believes that every single American cheats on their taxes, and thus has probable cause to search all bank account activity.
You may have also heard of China’s social credit system, which is like our credit scoring system – on steroids. From Wired UK:
… anyone who has shopped online with eBay has a rating on shipping times and communication, while Uber drivers and passengers both rate each other; if your score falls too far, you’re out of luck.
China’s social credit system expands that idea to all aspects of life, judging citizens’ behavior and trustworthiness. Caught jaywalking, don’t pay a court bill, play your music too loud on the train — you could lose certain rights, such as booking a flight or train ticket.
But by far the most dystopian technology being discussed is central bank digital currencies, which are currently being studied by the Federal Reserve and championed by Fed Governor Lael Brainerd, “It’s just very hard for me to imagine that the U.S., given the status of the dollar as a dominant currency in international payments, wouldn’t come to the table in that circumstance with a similar kind of an offering.”
If adopted, Central Bank Digital Dollars could take this trend to its ultimate conclusion, the government would be able to monitor literally every economic transaction by every citizen.
Imagine these scenarios:
During self-checkout at the grocery store an alarm rings – and a warning pops up – PURCHASE DENIED. FDA guidelines indicate your sugar consumption is too high. You may not purchase the Pepsi and Sugar Pops. Please return these items to the shelves. In order to complete your order, you must add one pound of broccoli.
You pull up to the gas pump and start filling up – but after 10 gallons the pumps shuts off. The electronic display reads – Digital toll collection data indicates that on Monday October 4 you averaged 71 miles per hour on I-95 in a 65-mph zone. Fuel purchases will be limited to 10 gallons per week for the next 30 days.
You get the picture — it’s all just for your own good. Now, I’m not saying that the government will definitely use its access to every transaction by every citizen to institute such a system, but it is not out of the realm of possibility.
In fact, a card based social credit system – tied to availability of food and medicine — is already up and running in Venezuela. In 2016, Venezuela launched the “Fatherland Card,” with technology supplied by Chinese telecom company, ZTE. While the card is still voluntary, over 18 million of Venezuela’s 31 million inhabitants have already gotten one.
If Central Bank digital currencies were to become our payment system, government control of all purchases would become a viable option. This would put the government in a position to achieve a much higher level of control than those imagined in the fictional worlds in The Hunger Games or 1984. I don’t know about you, but I sure wouldn’t want politicians and bureaucrats wrestling with the temptation to enact laws and regulations controlling each and every transaction in America.
James Miller lives in Lyme. Formerly an investment banker, he now serves as an expert witness in financial fraud cases.
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