Core values

Follow the money; follow the incentives.

Cybersecurity is an intractable problem for many of the same reasons climate change is: often the people paying the cost are not the people who derive the benefits. The foundation of the Workshop on the Economics of Information Security is often traced to the 2001 paper Why Information Security is Hard, by the late Ross Anderson. There were earlier hints, most notably in the 1999 paper Users Are Not the Enemy by Angela Sasse and Anne Adams.

Anderson’s paper directly examined and highlighted the influence of incentives on security behavior. Sasse’s paper was ostensibly about password policies and the need to consider human factors in designing them. But hidden underneath was the fact that the company department that called her in was not the IT team or the help desk team but accounting. Help desk costs to support users who forgot their passwords were rising so fast they threatened to swamp the company.

At the 23rd WEIS, held this week in Dallas (see also 2020), papers studied questions like which values drive people’s decisions when hit by ransomware attacks (Zinaida Benenson); whether the psychological phenomenon of delay discounting could be used to understand the security choices people make (Einar Snekkenes); and whether a labeling scheme would help get people to pay for security (L Jean Camp).

The latter study found that if you keep the label simple, people will actually pay for security. It’s a seemingly small but important point: throughout the history of personal computing, security competes with so many other imperatives that it’s rarely a factor in purchasing decisions. Among those other imperatives: cost, convenience, compatibility with others, and ease of use. But also: it remains near-impossible to evaluate how secure a product or provider is. Only the largest companies are in a position to ask detailed questions of cloud providers, for example,

Or, in an example provided by Chitra Marti, rare is the patient who can choose a hospital based on the security arrangements it has in place to protect its data. Marti asked a question I haven’t seen before: what is the role of market concentration in cybersecurity? To get at this, Marti looked at the decade’s experience of electronic medical records in hospitals since the big post-2008 recession push to digitize. Since 2010, more than 150 million records have been breached.

Of course, monoculture is a known problem in cybersecurity as it is in agriculture: if every machine runs the same software all machines are vulnerable to the same attacks. Similarly, the downsides of monopoly – poorer service, higher prices, lower quality – are well known. Marti’s study tying the two together found correlations in the software hospitals run and rarely change, even after a breach, though they do adopt new security measures. Hospitals choose software vendors for all sorts of reasons such as popularity, widspread use in their locality, or market leadership. The difficulty of deciding to change may be exacerbated by positive benefits to their existing choice that would be lost and outweigh the negatives.

These broader incentives help explain, as Richard Clayton set out, why distributed denial of service attacks remain so intractable. A key problem is “reflectors”, which amplify attacks by using spoofed IP addresses to send requests where the size of the response will dwarf the request. With this technique, a modest amount of outgoing traffic lands a flood on the chosen target (the one whose IP address has been spoofed). Fixing infrastructure to prevent these reflectors is tedious and only prevents damage to others. Plus, the provider involved may have to sacrifice the money they are paid to carry the traffic. For reasons like these, over the years the size of DDoS attacks has grown until only the largest anti-DDoS providers can cope with them. These realities are also why the early effort to push providers to fix their systems – RFC 2267 – failed. The incentives, in classic WEIS terms, are misaligned.

Clayton was able to use the traffic data he was already collecting to create a short list of the largest reflected amplified DDoS attacks each week and post it on a private Slack channel so providers could inspect their logs to trace it back to the source

At this point a surprising thing happened: the effort made a difference. Reflected amplified attacks dropped noticeably. The reasons, he and Ben Collier argue in their paper, have to do with the social connections among network engineers, the most senior of whom helped connect the early Internet and have decades-old personal relationships with their peers that have been sustained through forums such as NANOG and M3AAWG. This social capital and shared set of values kicked in when Clayton’s action lists moved the problem from abuse teams into the purview of network engineer s. Individual engineers began racing ahead; Amazon recently highlighted AWS engineer Tom Scholl’s work tracing back traffic and getting attacks stopped.

Clayton concluded by proposing “infrastructural capital” to cover the mix of human relationships and the position in the infrastructure that makes them matter. It’s a reminder that underneath those giant technology companies there still lurks the older ethos on which the Internet was founded, and humans whose incentives are entirely different from profit-making. And also: that sometimes intractable problems can be made less intractable.

Illustrations: WEIS waits for the eclipse.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Review: The Bill Gates Problem

The Bill Gates Problem: Reckoning with the Myth of the Good Billionaire
By Tim Schwab
Metropolitan Books
ISBN: 978-1-25085009-6

Thirty years ago, the Federal Trade Commission began investigating one of the world’s largest technology companies on antitrust grounds. Was it leveraging its monopoly in one area to build dominance in others? Did it bully smaller competitors into disclosing their secrets, which it then copied? And so on. That company was Microsoft, Windows was giving it leverage over office productivity software, web browsers, and media players, and its leader was Bill Gates. In 1999, the courts ruled Microsoft a monopoly.

At the time, it was relatively commonplace for people to complain that Gates was insufficiently charitable. Why wasn’t he more philanthropic, given his vast and increasing wealth? (Our standards for billionaire wealth were lower back then.) Be careful what you wish for…

The transition from monopolist mogul to beneficent social entrepreneur where Tim Schwab starts in The Bill Gates Problem: Reckoning with the Myth of the Good Billionaire. In Schwab’s view, the reason is well-executed PR, in which category he includes the many donations the foundation makes to journalism organizations.

I have heard complaints for years that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s approach to philanthropy favors expensive technological interventions over cheaper, well-established ones. In education that might mean laptops and edtech software rather than training teachers; in medicine that might mean vaccine research rather than clean water. Schwab’s investigative work turns up dozens such stories in the areas BMGF works in: family planning, education, health. Yet, Schwab writes, citing numerous sources for his figures, for all the billions BMGF has poured into these areas, it has failed to meet its stated objectives.

You can argue that case, but Schwab moves on from there to examine the damaging effects of depending on a billionaire, no matter how smart and well-intentioned, to finance services that might more properly be the business of the state. No one elected Gates, and no one has voted on the priorities he has chosen to set. The covid pandemic provides a particularly good example. One of the biggest concerns as efforts to produce vaccines got underway was ensuring that access would not be limited to rich countries. Many believed that the most efficient way of doing this was to refrain from patenting the vaccines, and help poorer countries build their own production facilities. Gates was one of those who opposed this approach, arguing that patents were necessary to reward pharmaceutical companies for the investment they poured into research, and also that few countries had the expertise to make the vaccines. Gates gave in to pressure and reversed his position in May 2021 to support a “narrow waiver”. Reading that BMGF is the biggest funder of the WHO and remembering his preference for technological interventions made me wonder: how much do we have Gates to thank for the emphasis on vaccines and the reluctance to push cheaper non-pharmaceutical interventions like masks, HEPA filters, and ventilation in countries like the UK?

Schwab goes into plenty of detail about all this. But his wider point is to lay out the power Gates’s massive wealth – both the foundation’s and his own – gives him over the charitable sector and, through public-partnerships, many of the nations in which he operates. Schwab also calls Gates’s approach “philanthropic colonialism” because the bulk of his donations go to organizations based in the West, rather than directly to their counterparts elsewhere.

Pointing out the amount of taxpayer subsidy the foundation gets through the tax exemptions charities get, Schwab asks if we’re really getting value for our money. Wouldn’t we be better off collecting taxes and setting our own agendas? Is there really any such thing as a “good” billionaire?

To tell the truth

It was toward the end of Craig Wright’s cross-examination on Wednesday when, for the first time in many days, he was lost for words. Wright is in court because the non-profit Crypto Open Patent Alliance seeks a ruling that he is not, as he claims, bitcoin inventor Satoshi Nakomoto, who was last unambiguously heard from in 2011.

Over the preceding days, Wright had repeatedly insisted “I am the real Satoshi” and disputed forensic analysis – anachronistic fonts, metadata, time stamps – pronouncing his proffered proofs forgeries.. He was consistently truculent, verbose, and dismissive of everyone’s expertise but his own and of everyone’s degrees except the ones he holds. For example: “Meiklejohn has not studied cryptography in any depth,” he said of Sarah Meiklejohn, the now-professor who as a student in 2013 showed that bitcoin transactions are traceable. In a favorite moment, Jonathan Hough, KC, who did most of the cross-examination, interrupted a diatribe about the failings of the press with, “Moving on from your expertise on journalism, Dr Wright…”

Participants in a drinking game based on his saying “That is not correct” would be dead of alcohol poisoning. In between, he insisted several times that he never wanted to be outed as Satoshi, and wishes that everyone would “leave me alone and let me invent”. Any money he is awarded in court he will give to charities ; he wants nothing for himself.

But at the moment we began with he was visibly stumped. The question, regarding a variable on a Github page: “Do you know what unsigned means?”

Wright: “Basically, an unsigned variable…it’s not an integer with…it’s larger. I’m not sure how to say it.”

Lawyer: “Try.”

Wright: “How I’d describe it, I’m not quite sure. I’m not good with trying to do things like this.” He could explain it easily in writing… (Transcription by Norbert on exTwitter.)

The lawyer explained it thusly: an unsigned variable cannot be a negative number.

“I understand that, but would I have thought of saying it in such a simple way? No.”

Experience as a journalist teaches you that the better you understand something the more simply and easily you can explain it. Wright’s inability to answer blew the inadequately bolted door plug out of his world’s expert persona. Everything until then could be contested: the stomped hard drive, the emails he wrote, or didn’t write, or wrote only one sentence of, the allegations that he had doctored old documents to make it look like he had been thinking about bitcoin before the publication of Satoshi’s foundational 2008 paper. But there’s no disguising lack of basic knowledge. “Should have been easy,” says a security professor (tenured, chaired) friend.

Normally, cryptography removes ambiguity. This is especially true of public key cryptography and its complementary pair of public and private keys. Being able to decrypt something with a well-attested public key is clear proof that it was encrypted with the complementary private key. Contrariwise, if a specific private key decrypts it, you know that key’s owner is the intended recipient. In both cases, as a bonus, you get proof that the text has not been altered since its encryption. It *ought* to be simple for Wright to support his claim by using Satoshi’s private keys. If he can’t do that, he must present a reason and rely on weaker alternatives.

Courts of law, on the other hand, operate on the balance of probabilities. They don’t remove ambiguity; they study it. Wright’s case is therefore a cultural clash, with far-reaching consequences. COPA is complaining that Wright’s repeated intellectual property lawsuits against developers working on bitcoin projects are expensive in both money and time. Soon after the unsigned variable exchange, the lawyer asked Wright what he will do if the court rules against him. “Move on to patents,” Wright said. He claims thousands of patents relating to bitcoin and the blockchain, and a brief glance at Google Patents shows many filings, some granted.

However this case comes out, therefore, it seems likely Wright will continue to try to control bitcoin. Wright insists that bitcoin isn’t meant to be “digital gold”, but that its true purpose is to facilitate micropayments. I haven’t “studied bitcoin in any depth” (as he might say), but as far as I can tell it’s far too slow, too resource-intensive, and too volatile to be used that way. COPA argues, I think correctly, that it’s the opposite of the world enshrined in Satoshi’s original paper; its whole point was to use cryptography to create the blockchain as a publicly attested, open, shared database that could eliminate central authorities such as banks.

In the Agatha Christie version of this tale, most likely Wright would be an imposter, an early hanger-on who took advantage of the gap formed by Satoshi’s disappearance and the deaths of other significant candidates. Dorothy Sayers would have Lord Peter Wimsey display unexpected mathematical brilliance to improve on Satoshi’s work, find him, and persuade him to turn over his keys and documents to king and country. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have both Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes on the trail. Holmes would get there first and send him into protection to ensure Morarty couldn’t take criminal advantage. And then the whole thing would be hushed up in the public interest.

The case continues.

Illustrations: The cryptographic code from “The Dancing Men”, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Cryptocurrency winter

There is nowhere in the world, Brett Scott says in his recent book, Cloudmoney, that supermarkets price oatmeal in bitcoin. Even in El Salvador, where bitcoin became legal tender in 2021, what appear to be bitcoin prices are just the underlying dollar price refracted through bitcoin’s volatile exchange rate.

Fifteen years ago, when bitcoin was invented, its adherents thought by now it would be a mainstream currency instead of a niche highly speculative instrument of financial destruction and facilitator of crime. Five years ago, the serious money people thought it important enough to consider fighting back with central bank digital currencies (CBDCs).

In 2019, Facebook announced Libra, a consortium-backed cryptocurrency that would enable payments on its platform, apparently to match China’s social media messaging system WeChat, which are used by 1 billion users monthly. By 2021, when Facebook’s holding company renamed itself Meta, Libra had become “Diem”. In January 2022 Diem was sold to Silvergate Bank, which announced in February 2023 it would wind down and liquidate its assets, a casualty of the FTX collapse.

As Dave Birch writes in his 2020 book, The Currency Cold War, it was around the time of Facebook’s announcement that central banks began exploring CBDCs. According to the Atlantic Council’s tracker, 114 countries are exploring CDBCs, and 11 have launched one. Two – Ecuador and Senegal – have canceled theirs. Plans are inactive in 15 more.

The tracker marks the EU, US, and UK as in development. The EU is quietly considering the digital euro. In the US, in March 2022 president Joe Biden issued an executive order including instructions to research a digital dollar. In the UK the Bank of England has an open consultation on the digital pound (closes June 7). It will not make a decision until at least 2025 after completing technical development of proofs of concept and the necessary architecture. The earliest we’d see a digital pound is around 2030.

But first: the BoE needs a business case. In 2021, the House of Lords issued a report (PDF) calling the digital pound a “solution in search of a problem” and concluding, “We have yet to hear a convincing case for why the UK needs a retail CBDC.” Note “retail”. Wholesale, for use only between financial institutions, may have clearer benefits.

Some of the imagined benefits of CBDCs are familiar: better financial inclusion, innovation, lowered costs, and improved efficiency. Others are more arcane: replicating the role of cash to anchor the monetary system in a digital economy. That’s perhaps the strongest argument, in that today’s non-cash payment options are commercial products but cash is public infrastructure. Birch suggests that the digital pound could allow individuals to hold accounts at the BoE. These would be as risk-free as cash and potentially open to those underserved by the banking system.

Many of these benefits will be lost on most of us. People who already have bank accounts or modern financial apps are unlikely to care about a direct account with the BoE, especially if, as Birch suggests, one “innovation” they might allow is negative interest rates. More important, what is the difference between pounds as numbers in cyberspace and pounds as fancier numbers in cyberspace? For most of us, our national currencies are already digital, even if we sometimes convert some of it into physical notes and coins. The big difference – and part of what they’re fighting over – is who owns the transaction data.

At Rest of World, Temitayo Lawal recounts the experience in Nigeria., the first African country to adopt a CBDC. Launched 18 months ago, the eNaira has been tried by only 0.5% of the population and used for just 1.4 million transactions. Among the reasons Lawal finds, Nigeria’s eNaira doesn’t have the flexibility or sophistication of independent cryptocurrencies, younger Nigerians see little advantage to the eNaira over the apps they were already using, 30 million Nigerians (about 13% of the population) lack Internet access, and most people don’t want to entrust their financial information to their government. By comparison, during that time Nigerians traded $1.16 billion in bitcoin on the peer-to-peer platform Paxful.

Many of these factors play out the same way elsewhere. From 2014 to 2018, Ecuador operated Dinero Electrónico, a mobile payment system that allowed direct transfer of US dollars and aimed to promote financial inclusion. In a 2020 paper, researchers found DE never reached critical mass because it didn’t offer enough incentive for adoption, was opposed by the commercial banks, and lacked a sufficient supporting ecosystem for cashing in and out. In China, which launched its CBDC in August 2020, the e-CNY is rarely used because, the Economist reports Alipay and We Chat work well enough that retailers don’t see the need to accept it. The Bahamanian sand dollar has gained little traction. Denmark and Japan have dropped the idea entirely, as has Finland, although it supports the idea of a digital euro.

The good news, such as it is, is that by the time Western countries are ready to make a decision either some country will have found a successful formula that can be adapted, or everyone who’s tried it will have failed and the thing can be shelved until it’s time to rediscover it. That still leaves the problem that Scott warns of: a cashless society will give Big Tech and Big Finance huge power over us. We do need an alternative.

Illustrations: Bank of England facade.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Follow on Mastodon or Twitter.

Review: Tracers in the Dark

Tracers in the Dark: The Global Hunt for the Crime Lords of Cryptocurrency
By Andy Greenberg
ISBN: 978-0-385-548/09-0

At the 1997 Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, the computer scientist Timothy C. May, a co-founder of the influential Cypherpunks mailing l|ist, presented the paper Untraceable Digital Cash, Information Markets, and BlackNet. In it, he suggested that the combination of the Internet, anonymous digital cash, and the possibility that anyone could be a “mint” (in the money sense) created the conditions for BlackNet, a market in stolen secrets, assassinations, and other illegal goods and services. In trying to stop it, he said, regulators and governments would invoke the “Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse”: nuclear terrorists, child pornographers, money launderers, and drug dealers.

Like all futurists, May was building on existing trends. Digital cash already existed in an early form, and governments were already invoking the Four Horsemen in opposing widespread access to strong encryption (they still are, in debates about the UK’s Online Safety bill. Still, his paper also imagined Wikileaks.

Almost certainly the unknown creator of bitcoin, Satoshi Nakomoto, knew the cypherpunks list. In any event, at the beginning, bitcoin appeared to be – and the community surrounding it sometimes billed it as – sufficiently anonymous and untraceable to enable May’s BlackNet. Tl;dr: not for long.

In the highly readable Tracers in the Dark, veteran Wired journalist Andy Greenberg tells the story of step-by-step technical advances that enabled law enforcement, tax authorities, and others to identify and arrest the owners and users of sites dealing in illegal goods like Silk Road, AlphaBay, and Welcome to Video, and take the sites down.

The essential problem for criminals seeking secrecy is, of course, that the public blockchain indelibly records every transaction for all to see for all time. Not only that, but the bigger the pile of data gets the more useful information it yields to analysis. Following the money works.

Greenberg’s series of detective stories begins and ends with Sarah Meiklejohn, now a professor in cryptography and security at University College London. As a graduate student circa 2012, she began studying how bitcoin was being used, and developed clustering techniques that ultimately made it possible to understand what was happening inside the network and identify individual users and owners. Following in her footsteps are an array of interested detectives: the fledgling company Chainalysis, Internal Revenue Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and international police. She herself declined a well-paid offer to join them; she sees her role as that of an impartial researcher issuing a public advisory.

At every step the investigators had help from the criminals themselves, who over and over again were remarkably sloppy about their own security. Ross Ulbricht, was identified as the administrator of Silk Road because he’d once posted his real email address to a coding forum. Alexandre Cazes, the owner of AlphaBay, was successfully arrested because he kept helpfully posting details of his many female conquests to an online forum, helping the agents following him build a detailed understanding of his whereabouts.

Each takedown has been followed by efforts to improve blockchain privacy. But even so, investigators have years’ worth of leads they can still follow up. And by then, as Danish entrepreneur Michael Gronager says toward the end of the book, referring to the then new, more resistant technologies Monero and Zcash, “Any of these systems, anything that’s developed, you always see a couple of years alter, someone finds something.” Nothing’s perfect.

The privacy price of food insecurity

One of the great unsolved questions continues to be: what is my data worth? Context is always needed: worth to whom, under what circumstances, for what purpose? Still, supermarkets may give us a clue.

At Novara Media, Jake Hurfurt, who runs investigations for Big Brother Watch, has been studying suprmarket loyalty cards. He finds that increasingly only loyalty card holders have access to special offers, which used to be open to any passing customer.

Tesco now and Sainsburys soon, he says, “are turning the cost-of-living crisis into a cost-of-privacy crisis”,

Neat phrasing, but I’d say it differently: these retailers are taking advantage of the cost-of-living crisis to extort desperate people ito giving up their data. The average value of the discounts might – for now – give a clue to the value supermarkets place on it.

But not for long, since the pattern going forward is a predictable one of monopoly power: as the remaining supermarkets follow suit and smaller independent shops thin out under the weight of rising fuel bills and shrinking margins, and people have fewer choices, the savings from the loyalty card-only special offers will shrink. Not so much that they won’t be worth having, but it seems obvious they’ll be more generous with the discounts – if “generous” is the word – in the sign-up phase than they will once they’ve achieved customer lock-in.

The question few shoppers are in a position to answer while they’re strying to lower the cost of filling their shopping carts is what the companies do with the data they collect. BBW took the time to analyze Tesco’s and Sainsburys’ privacy policies, and found that besides identity data they collect detailed purchase histories as well as bank accounts and payment information…which they share with “retail partners, media partners, and service providers”. In Tesco’s case, these include Facebook, Google, and, for those who subscribe to them, Virgin Media and Sky. Hyper-targeted personal ads right there on your screen!

All that sounds creepy enough. But consider what could well come next. Also this week, a cross-party group of 50 MPs and peers and cosinged by BBW, Privacy International and Liberty, wrote to Frasers Group deploring that company’s use of live facial recognition in its stores, which include Sports Direct and the department store chain House of Fraser. Frasers Group’s purpose, like retailers and pub chains were trialing a decade ago , is effectively to keep out people suspected of shoplifting and bad behavior. Note that’s “suspected”, not “convicted”.

What happens as these different privacy invasions start to combine?

A store equipped with your personal shopping history and financial identity plus live facial recognition cameras, knows the instant you walk into the store who you are, what you like to buy, and how valuable a customer your are. Such a system, equipped with some sort of socring, could make very fine judgments. Such as: this customer is suspected of stealing another customer’s handbag, but they’re highly profitable to us, so we’ll let that go. Or: this customer isn’t suspected of anything much but they look scruffy and although they browse they never buy anything – eject! Or even: this journalist wrote a story attacking our company. Show them the most expensive personalized prices. One US entertainment company is already using live facial recognition to bar entry to its venues to anyone who works for any law firm involved in litigation against it. Britain’s data protection laws should protect us against that sort of abuse, but will they survive the upcoming bonfire of retained EU law?

And, of course, what starts with relatively anodyne product advertising becomes a whole lot more sinister when it starts getting applied to politics, voter manipulation and segmentation, and the “pre-crime” systems

Add the possibilities of technology that allows retailers to display personalized pricing in-store, just like an online retailer could do in the privacy of your own browser, Could we get to a scenario where a retailer, able to link your real world identity and purchasing power to your online nd offline movements could perform a detailed calculation of what you’d be willing to pay for a particular item? What would surge pricing for the last remaining stock of the year’s hottest toy on Christmas Eve look like?

This idea allows me to imagine shopping partnerships, where the members compare prices and the partner with the cheapest prices buys that item for the whole group. In this dystopian future, I imagine such gambits would be banned.

Most of this won’t affect people rich enough to grandly refuse to sign up for loyalty cards, and none of it will affect people rich and eccentric enough to do source everything from local, independent shops – and, if they’re allowed, pay cash.

Four years ago, Jaron Lanier toured with the proposal that we should be paid for contributing to commercial social media sites. The problem with this idea was and is that payment creates a perverse incentive for users to violate their own privacy even more than they do already, and that fair payment can’t be calculated when the consequences of disclosure are perforce unknown.

The supermarket situation is no different. People need food security and affordability, They should not have to pay for that with their privacy.

Illustrations: .London supermarket checkout, 2006 (via Wikimedia.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Follow on Mastodon or Twitter.

Review: Cloudmoney

Cloudmoney: Cash, Cards, Crypto, and the War for our Wallets
By Brett Scott
Publisher: Bodley Head
ISBN: 978-1-847-92587-9

Three years ago, the area around the local tube station included a bank and four ATMs. Come the pandemic, the bank closed, never to return, and so did two of the ATMs. The loss of the bank gave a couple of the chain stores an excuse to refuse to take cash. But they’re a minority in an area full of independent local shops, who recognize that many of their customers are cash users. Journey into some parts of central London, however, and cash gets you ghosted.

We are told that the cashless future is what we want: it’s more convenient (except when the system is down, the app needs to be rebooted, or there’s no Internet connection). The reality, as “monetary anthropologist” and former broker Brett Scott points out in his book Cloudmoney, is that despite this inevitability narrative, one reason electronic/digital payments are more convenient is a deliberate effort to make cash harder to access. Often, promoters claim the cashless society is – or will be – more financially inclusive. Yet, as Scott recounts, that “inclusion” in the remote global economy often brings with it the exclusion of locally-controlled, less formal economies. Less financial inclusion, more *enclosure* and “corporate seep”.

Scott’s central thesis is simple: once the forces of Big Tech and Big Finance have merged, they will have a hitherto unimaginable amount of power over all of us. I have some sympathy with this argument. People forget that it was through the banks that Gilead was brought into being in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. All they had to do was locate all the accounts tagged “F” and turn off access until a suitable male came forward to claim them. This is the power of cloudmoney – money that exists for us only in the form of numbers that represent promises to pay. Scott is not predicting a specific dystopia; but he does want to propagate a counterbalancing narrative to the “liberation” every new fintech app pretends to promise while scarfing up all our personal data. In his campaign to protect the public system of cash, he sometimes finds himself in the company of conspiracy theorists whose other ideas he rejects.

What is less clear is where bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies fit in. They also started with rhetoric: they were digital cash, digital gold, a mechanism for bypassing the world’s banks and governments. In practice, so far, they haven’t succeeded at any of these things, and even in El Salvador, where bitcoin is legal tender, you can’t use it to buy a box of oatmeal in a supermarket.

The story technology companies tell is, of course, that they are disrupting the stodgy, antiquated world of traditional finance. Instead, what Scott sees is plain old automation that serves that world and tightens its control. Almost every new service, whatever the rhetoric it starts with, from credit cards to Paypal to Apple Pay to Facebook’s failed Libra cryptocurrency, becomes a front end for bank accounts for the same reason that robbers always focused on them: that’s where the money is. The exception is cash – slow, partially disconnected cash that enables transactions that aren’t caught in what Scott calls the “digital mesh” of corporate capitalism. No wonder they hate it.