Several months ago, I met a well-known cryptocurrency privacy advocate friend for lunch in DC. We had a lively conversation about the pros and cons of privacy-enhancing digital tokens. At the end of our conversation, we acknowledged that concerns over both illicit use and privacy violations had merit, even if neither of us could offer a mutually satisfying solution. What happened next, though, was quite telling.
The waiter brought the bill. In preparation for the lunch, I had made a point to take out cash from an ATM, since I expected my friend to object on privacy grounds to either of us using a credit card. With the check on the table, I pulled out my twenty dollar bill. However, my friend the privacy advocate pulled out an American Express card. He then urged me to use my credit card to make splitting the bill easier.
That is when I realized how the polemical discussion about total financial surveillance versus absolute privacy is misleading. In reality, neither of us were absolutists. The privacy advocate was comfortable using a credit card, presumably because of legal standards and business procedures that hinder government authorities (in free countries like the United States) from abusing access to financial data. However, if we lived in a different capital city, like Moscow, Tehran, Beijing, or Caracas, authorities could more easily use our financial transaction data to violate our liberty.
Technology is just one variable in the equation of freedom and privacy. The best protection from the threat of unjust financial surveillance comes from having sound legal systems, business practices, and technological infrastructure to mitigate the risks of mass collection of financial data for political purposes. At a societal level, having an accountable government that codifies the respect for privacy (as in our 4th amendment against unreasonable search and seizure) offers more weight than any one technological tool. In societies with accountable governments that sometimes overstep privacy boundaries, the press, judiciary, and public opinion help put them in check. However authoritarianism can trump all three.
The credit card incident spurred me to think more about how the banking system currently balances the tension between anti-money laundering concerns and privacy. For one, the government does not have real-time access to view, track, or indiscriminately block every person’s financial transactions. Banks and payment companies are privy to their account holders’ activity and will furnish this information under certain circumstances, as required by law. Still, there is a fence–not a wall–between government authorities and banking data.
In the U.S., organizations with access to your financial information have a legal burden to protect it. The government and the public take breaches of privacy data (financial or otherwise) seriously, with fines and lawsuits as potential repercussions for data mishandlers.
Generally, most people in free societies appear comfortable with the banking system’s level of privacy. Cryptocurrency enthusiasts who posit “censorship resistance” as the prime directive of cryptocurrency use may want to reconsider their emphasis. While tools to allow anonymous transactions may have some righteous use cases, perhaps more energy should go toward cultivating societies that allow freer expression and other personal freedoms so citizens do not have to resist government censorship. Unfortunately, there is currently no software protocol for that.
Here is a recommendation for those who want to see freer societies: Consider working in public service and in the foreign policy realm in particular. U.S. foreign policy is a key lever in many of the global affairs you should care about; international conflict and peace, economic growth and financial stability, and protections for human rights. It does not mean a particular U.S. policy is correct, but when U.S. policy is well-crafted, it can have a substantial impact.
A segment within Silicon Valley and the tech community is growing more interested in human rights, often with strong libertarian leanings. Cryptocurrency enthusiasts are the clearest manifestation of this. But to help the struggle for human liberty, the crypto space will have to get past something: its own ideological bubble.
The West Coast touts a “think globally” reputation, but its thinking is mired in local biases. I know this firsthand. I was born and raised in California and graduated from UC Berkeley. I remain a Californian at heart in many ways, but I have now spent half my life in a very different bubble — Washington DC.
Silicon Valley overemphasizes the power of technology in helping the world and sees government mainly as a fetter. Tech entrepreneurs are correct that civil servants are typically less innovative and often far removed from the ins and outs of markets. However, policy nuance is hard to attain without exposure to how the sausage is made within Washington bureaucracies. National security threats and geopolitical power dynamics, in particular, are not well conveyed when only understood through the aperture of cable news and tweet threads.
Working in government and foreign policy is not for everyone. And some civil servants do turn cynical when the world does not move according to their policy aims. But working in places like the State Department, Treasury, the military and intelligence, or even USAID, gives one a clearer sense of how all the levers of global affairs interact. You come away with a knowledge of the U.S. government’s limits and its imperfections. You also gain insight into the checks and balances we have and how many people around the world suffer perpetually because their governments go unchecked.
Is a censorship resistant digital token really what the world wants? Or do most people simply want to live in an environment where they can trust that, when men and women entrusted with power do wrong (as is inevitably the case), people will have recourse; that officials can be corrected?
A naiveté prevails in the tech community thinking that problems like poverty, social inequity, and government oppression would be solved if people simply had access to certain technological tools. However, the history of humans shows that while these problems persist, they have been reduced the most in places with free and open markets and transparent and accountable political systems. China is one of the most technologically advanced nations on earth and one of the most politically repressive.
There is also a willful blindness in the tech community to the adversarial geopolitical aims of nation states vying to displace America’s role in the financial system, assuming that if U.S. financial power only went away, all would be well in the international economy. But nature abhors a vacuum. And few are thinking about what a China-led order, for example, would mean for economic and social freedom around the world.
Tools for private financial transactions can provide some social benefit. Perhaps they allow a Hong Kong protester to raise funds to organize peaceful demonstrations or for a humanitarian NGO in Venezuela to keep operating if the Maduro regime closes its bank accounts. Such censorship resistant financial access is, however, a band-aid measure in environments with unhealthy, diseased perhaps, political environments.
It is odd that few cryptocurrency businesses have permanent offices or senior personnel in Washington D.C. despite the importance of federal regulations to their business. This may be due to that Left Coast naiveté about how the rest of the world works. More tech-minded young people should get experience in policy work, even at think tanks if not in government. Addressing problems of government repression and privacy vulnerability around the world is going to take more than technology. Policymakers and cryptocurrency experts should join forces as much as possible to help enable environments where human dignity, prosperity, and freedom can coexist. Maybe we should start over lunch.