Fighting for control of our purse strings

The UK’s Crown Prosecution Service says that a new law is needed to stop terrorists and other criminals using Bitcoin-style digital payments for illicit purposes such as money laundering.

Really? We have more than enough laws already, and a quick way to cut crime would be to scrap two-thirds of them, but that’s another story. But the thinking behind this particular proposal is clear: our authorities feel that, because of technical innovation, they are losing control of money, and want to reassert it. Hence all the dire talk to bolster this new power grab. "Shock horror: Drugs are being traded on the ‘dark web’” – that sort of thing. Of course, if drugs were legal (even if regulated, like alcohol) this would not be a problem. (Yet another story.)

But the CPS proposal is another thin-end-of-the-wedge issue. Sure, we all want a way of dispossessing scumbags who pile up secret funds to finance terrorism or to conceal gains from fraud and corruption. But should the authorities be allowed to barge into everyone’s accounts, Bitcoin or regular, as they please, or on some fishing trip, or on the allegations of someone with a grudge? No.

In the early days, many authorities wanted to close down Bitcoin and other digital payments entirely. Again, the excuse was that criminals would use them. Pardon? Since most of the world’s crime is done in regular currencies, that arguments would put the entire boards of the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the European Central Bank in the slammer. A neat idea, but not exactly justice.

I remember decades ago, before cellphones and stuff, when Citizens Band radio came out – to the delight of long distance lorry drivers, who could not talk to friends while on the road (and warn others of police patrols). There were appeals to ban it in Parliament, on the grounds that criminals could use it to plot robberies (I’m not making this up). Well, we might as well have abolished telephones and letters (and while at it, heliograph or any other communication device). Again, it was fear of the technologically new.

The Feds say they have cracked the iPhone codes, though MI6 boffins still seem to be scratching their heads. Again, there have been demands to open up the codes so the authorities can snoop at will. Do we really think their snooping will stop at bad guys? Or will junior officials just not be able to resist prying into the text messages of a few celebs that the Sunday tabloids have interest in?

Apple was right to resist the Feds’ legal challenge, on the grounds that people’s privacy and people’s security are intimately bound up and too important to be given over to government politicians and officials. I think the same is true with money, of any kind. One of the joys of cash is that we can use it without the government keeping a track of our spending: after all, control people’s spending and you control their lives. Let’s keep it a private and secure as we possibly can.