The West continues to emulate the authoritarian tendencies of the Chinese state at a rapid clip. We copied various aspects of Xi Jinping’s Covid-19 pandemic response. Our police forces have begun rolling out facial recognition surveillance cameras. Now, it appears as though the introduction of a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) is next.
Since 2014, the People’s Bank of China has been trialling a CBDC, making it the first major economy to issue a government-backed digital currency. Countries around the world are now racing to do the same. This week the European Commission affirmed its commitment to the creation of a centralised digital euro, while a public consultation issued by the UK Treasury and the Bank of England is scheduled to close today.
A march towards digitalisation and the proliferation of private cryptocurrencies form the Treasury’s justification for these proposals. However, the case for a centralised digital currency has still not been fully made. Nor is it immediately apparent where a CBDC would fit into our existing financial ecosystem. What is clear, though, is that the introduction of a so-called “Britcoin” would constitute a major change to our society and could come at a cost to our civil liberties.
Major financial institutions already have legal obligations to conduct due diligence checks on customers. But placing the state at the heart of our personal finances like this would open a Pandora’s box of new surveillance opportunities. A CBDC would work by recording financial transactions in a core ledger, and anyone with access to this ledger could see these transactions. Placed within an existing legal framework of counter-terror law, anti-money laundering regulations and investigatory powers law, generalised surveillance of our spending would be inevitable.
Experts have also pointed out that a CBDC could not work without the parallel introduction of some form of digital identity system, which in itself would present a raft of civil liberties issues. Pairing such a system with personal spending data would create a vast treasure trove of sensitive information ripe for financial surveillance and profiling. This would almost certainly lead to digital and financial inequality in our society, with the impact felt hardest by those at the fringes — including those without digital access or the right documentation such as the elderly, migrants and poorer people.
Perhaps most disturbing of all is the possibility that a CBDC could be “programmable”. By its very nature, such a centrally administered digital currency could be manipulated and controlled like never before. Both the Treasury and the Bank of England have publicly stated that this is not their intention, but at other points they have contradicted such assurances by actively lauding the possibilities that programmability could bring. Speaking about the benefits of programmable digital currency in 2021, the Co-Chair of the Bank of England’s CBDC task force, Sir John Cunliffe said: “You could think, for example, of giving the children pocket money but programming the money so that it couldn’t be used for sweets. There’s a whole range of things that money could do — programmable money, as it’s called — which we can’t do with the current technology.”
In the context of a project which in its infancy appears to lack the trust of the British people, this is a strange and far from reassuring analogy.
In the same week in which Nigel Farage announced the sudden termination of his bank account, it is worth thinking about the rising spectre of financial censorship. The former MEP may be a polarising figure, but this tactic is increasingly being directed at groups on the Left and the Right by states and corporations alike. The relatively recent cases of Wikileaks and the Canadian truckers cast a concerning shadow.
It’s time for a proper democratic debate on these proposals. Meanwhile, the emulation of crude digital authoritarianism must stop, or else the future for freedom in the UK will be bleak.
– Mark Johnson