I was 12 years old and accompanied by my mum when I walked into our local bank to open my first account. It was a place full of smartly dressed, smiling adults, stewards of regulated finance there just for me, directing us both to comfy chairs, surrounded by mini pens on chains and relaxed talk of things I didn’t understand.
It was a place of trust. It had to be, because that bank, along with who knows how many other connected financial services, has been watching over me every day for 18 years since. For 17 of those years I carried on through offline and online life with never a question in my mind as to the hidden inner workings which allow a person to buy a sandwich, hire a car and travel the world with nothing more than a small, signed piece of plastic.
But for the past year that piece of plastic has served to remind me of what we sacrifice for the irresistible convenience of card payments and online and mobile banking we see evidenced everywhere we turn.
So what’s changed since those days when I was first guided in through the doors of a building and a sector propped up by questionable investment? Well, the cards look a little different. They have bright orange ones now. Some are even transparent. They have names like Monzo and Go Henry – these days even children are flouting debit cards. Pretty cool, right? Not really… “one card company has boasted that it can predict when a couple will divorce based on their spending patterns”. ¹
Of course, due to the nature of financial institutions, security is key, so there are many aspects of their policies which are understandable and shouldn’t raise concern. But there are other aspects which I feel to be more difficult to justify.
They’re not inclined to talk about it, but some [banks] are experimenting with mapping customer data to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook so they can “listen” to their customers' conversations on these sites. And some use tracking cookies (which record a customer’s website activity even after the customer has left the company’s site and report them back to a company’s database) to monitor online banking clients' website travels. ¹
Personal information may include…
Online profile and social media information and activity based on your interaction with us and our websites and applications, including for example, your banking profile and login information, Internet Protocol (IP) address, smart device information, location coordinates, online and mobile banking security authentication, mobile phone network information, searches, site visits and spending patterns.
The third-party companies we partner with include:
- Doubleclick [of Google]
- Facebook [say no more]
- Amazon [just as bad]
- OMG [indeed!]
- Taboola [what?]
- Google Search Adwords [Google’s back again]
- AOL [they still exist?]
- Lovemoney [yes you do]
- Pinterest [-ed in your data]
- LinkedIn [of Microsoft, the ones who make that operating system which tracks your every interaction]
- Twitter [aka ‘birdsite’]
- Snapchat [that app that uses the same psychological designs used in gambling to keep kids and young adults hooked in order to profit from their attention]
We will not share your information with anyone outside [our bank] except: […] with social media companies (in a secure format) or other third party advertisers so they can display relevant messages to you and others about our products and services on our behalf. Third party advertisers may also use information about your previous web activity to tailor adverts which are displayed to you
Cash is dying
Cash has now begun to feel strange in people’s hands. When you’re at a bar or supermarket and you hand over a note or some change, the person opposite you momentarily offers you a card reader before expressing genuine surprise and accepting the cash.
They smile and maybe you both crack a quick joke about how uncommon it is to use cash nowadays, but beyond the jokes lies the evidence of the troubling situation we find ourselves in: cash is a relic of the past, offering an increasingly rare opportunity to provide the level of financial privacy we all deserve, and its days are numbered; cards are ubiquitous, sliding in and out of our wallets so easily that sometimes the only ones who have a clear idea about our expenditures are the banks, the businesses they serve and the third parties who capitalise on the spoils.
But whereas cash is slowly dying, becoming increasingly insignificant to the vast majority of people today, something else is born, something which has, and could continue to, provide us with a level of control we’ve never had access to before.
The dream is realised
Cryptocurrency was once only discussed by a minority of enthusiasts who understood it to varying degrees and sensed its promise in the context of an increasingly centralised world of finance and tech, a world in which to be social was to offer up your identity to the darlings of Silicon Valley.
We’ve now had at least seven years to grow more accustomed to the more well-known cryptocurrencies. The big ‘B’ has become a household name. If you’re lucky you can even find one of a handful of Bitcoin (BTC) ATMs in some cities. But many people desirous of increased financial privacy learn too late that Bitcoin offers only pseudo-anonymity.
Arriving fashionably late to the game with no intention of fitting in with the crowd, Monero (XMR) is a privacy-by-default cryptocurrency with the answer for anyone who believes the details of any transaction, personal or otherwise, should be between only the payer and the payee. There are a few key features to note about Monero:
- It is untraceable and therefore private by default. Every transaction hides the unique hash addresses of the sender and the recipient, as well as the amount sent. This means that every Monero user’s activity enhances the privacy of all other users, unlike other privacy-focused cryptocurrencies which are not private by default, e.g. Zcash (ZEC).
- It can be selectively transparent. You can choose who sees your transactions. There are a number of reasons you may choose to do this, e.g. for proof of payment or for tax records.
- Its Kovri Project, which is currently in development, will route and encrypt transactions via I2P Invisible Internet Project nodes. This will obfuscate a transactor’s IP address and provide further protection against network monitoring.
Don’t worry if some of that went over your head. You can learn much more about Monero on their own website. All you need to know right now is that, though it’s still early days, in just a few years Monero’s passionate and dedicated community of developers have worked hard to introduce new features which allow people from all walks of life to make payments privately and securely – from citizens in oppressed countries seeking to avoid financial surveillance and censorship, to businesses simply wishing to conceal the details of the payments they make to their suppliers.
Here’s how you can get involved and use Monero yourself in order to maximise the privacy of your own payments:
- Learn more about Monero and what it has to offer
- Install the Monero wallet for storing, managing, sending and receiving funds
- Join an exchange (centralised or peer-to-peer) in order to acquire Monero
- Find merchants and services which accept Monero and try them out
- Donate or contribute to the project, or just tell a friend about it.
Other useful links
- Official Monero website: https://getmonero.org
- My preferred P2P Monero exchange: About us — LocalMonero
- Trezor hardware wallet, for maximum security of funds: https://trezor.io