As the U.S. wakes up to the reality and numbers of home-grown extremists in the wake of the attack on the Capitol building, the chief strategy officer of the Human Rights Foundation warned against demonizing privacy protection tools like encrypted chat and bitcoin.
Writing in Time, Alex Gladstein pointed to the growing popularity of encrypted chat apps like Signal and Telegram—which was prevented from create a blockchain payments platform. Saying that the “culture war” attacking encrypted messaging as a tool of criminals and terrorists seems to be ending, “the fight for privacy isn’t finished, it’s just moving to the next medium: money.”
Arguing that “Bitcoin is neutral like cash,” Gladstein said that “[t]he way to fight extremism isn’t to crack down on innovation and expand the surveillance state.”
Pointing to what can be revealed about people by examining their spending on things like the political books they read and their private medical procedures, Gladstein said avoiding government surveillance is essential. He added:
“Most Americans may not yet grasp that financial privacy is just as important as communications privacy for our democracy—that your spending habits say more about you than your words.”
Corporate digital payment systems like Apple Pay and Visa are growing even more common as cash use declines, yet they must also comply with anti-money-laundering rules that require identifying customers, Gladstein warned. Then add in the growing interest in central bank digital currencies (CBDC) that can directly tie the Federal Reserve to your digital wallet, he said.
Pay attention to all that and if you want to “understand why citizens need financial privacy to defend democracy, look to Hong Kong,” said Gladstein.
Demonstrators used cash to buy subway tickets to avoid being tracked to the protests, while those that donated to them saw bank accounts frozen
It’s worth noting that in China—which is far ahead of any other major economy in its push to create a digital yuan renminbi—the official leading the work on a CBDC coined the delightfully Orwellian phrase “controllable anonymity” when discussing its privacy features.
Which isn’t to say that bitcoin is all that private. Bitcoin intelligence firms like Chainalysis and CipherTrace like to point out that BTC is pseudonymous, not anonymous. And they are getting better at tracking it, as shown by investigations that shut down child porn sites and terrorism fundraisers. That’s why Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said she wanted to target “malign activities” using bitcoin and cryptocurrencies.
Still, the amount of crime facilitated by crypto is tiny compared to cash, as newly elected Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) pointed out on twitter on Jan. 25.
Yet neither bitcoin nor even privacy coins like monero are responsible for those activities. Criminals still largely use cash, and the “main superspreaders of extremist content remain centralized corporate platforms like Facebook and YouTube, not open-source privacy platforms,” Gladstein said. He added:
“As you read more articles demonizing identity-guarding tools like Signal and Bitcoin, think about the police state that awaits if we shun them and turn to mass surveillance to fight extremism. As anyone who lives in a dictatorship will say, that’s when you’ll need privacy the most.”