Many people feel that their right to use cash is at risk. The reason this is so significant might be lost on some, but cash is often an unheralded asset. Sentiment on the subject is so strong in the United Kingdom that a group of stakeholders recently launched a not-for-profit with the aim of safeguarding this ancient and critical resource.
The Cash Supply Alliance (CSA) will promote the widespread acceptance and availability of cash, so it remains a valid payment option for UK consumers of all demographics living anywhere in the country.
“We know that low income, rather than age, is the most accurate indicator for cash dependency,” explains Nigel Constable, Chairman of CSA. For many, it is also about the freedom to use cash, for budgeting, or to avoid card data being captured and monetised by private companies, he adds.
Though it is not taught in schools or discussed much day-to-day, cash plays a broad array of functions not easily replicated by other technologies. One extremely important quality is the capacity to protect an individual’s privacy.
Protection of privacy
The very idea of privacy seems to become more and more diluted each year. The penetration of digital technology in our lives, and in the infrastructure that makes up our societies, makes this a pernicious problem. On top of this, the way in which data is used, for and against us, incentivises the erosion of basic rights, such as the right to a life free of surveillance.
In modern times, our phones and computers are monitored. Unfortunately, this is not fiction nor conspiracy: Facebook and other companies are even exploring the use of special data analysis techniques to mine even our encrypted data, as a way to eke out that little more bit value from users of their services.
Your card transactions already carry quantities of data that can be used to track your life, and your mobile phone never stops talking with the network providers that make its mystical powers function. For many digital payment technologies, privacy is patently impossible; and where that is not the case, companies are actively looking for ways to circumvent obstacles to their profits.
This is an area where cash offers one of the only antidotes: cash is inherently private, requiring no third-party services nor electronic systems to function. In many ways, it is one of the last bastions of privacy in our increasingly monetised society. For many citizens, this safe harbour is something far too important to lose without a fight.
Another strength that cash offers is its power to provide social inclusion. Cash is a public good that belongs in the public domain. Unlike mobile payments or credit cards, the citizens of a country benefit from having banknotes available to them without needing to offer a private enterprise anything in return. In fact, cash is the only means of payment that is entirely public.
This vital quality is part of why Advocate General Giovanni Pitruzzella of the Court of Justice of the European Union stated that cash must be legally protected: “For those vulnerable individuals, cash is the only form of accessible money and thus the only means of exercising their fundamental rights linked to the use of money.”
No other mechanism protects vulnerable people’s rights to conduct payments. That is why, in the opinion of Pitruzzella, it should generally be forbidden to prevent the use of cash for payments.
Cash and emergencies
The power of cash to help those in need goes beyond the routine difficulties of vulnerable people. It can also serve society at the worst possible periods.
During national emergencies, it is well-documented that people turn to cash for assurance. During financial crises, moments of political insecurity, and even most recently with the coronavirus pandemic — it is common for households to store cash as a lifeline. People sometimes fear that systems could break down, or that banks could even fail. In such instances, it offers great peace of mind to know that, no matter what happens, cash is available to keep life moving and food in the home.
This extends to extreme scenarios, such as humanitarian crises too. There are few things more essential for the migrating refugee than the ability to pay for essentials while they complete their uncertain journey. Phones might die, networks fail, but cash is one thing they can be sure of. That is why NGOs often hand out small packets of cash when they intervene in countries or regions in turmoil.
Cash during disruption
Cash has another vital function: it is the stopgap when typical infrastructure fails. When power outages happen, or a technical fault in the ever-expanding digital supply causes disruption — cash is dependably there to catch the economy while it stumbles. When Visa went down around the world, followed weeks later by rival Mastercard’s outages in Europe, each time it was the humble banknote that kept the day’s transactions alive.
As the climate becomes more hostile, we can expect the robustness of our technology systems to be more frequently tested by extreme weather events. In many of these future scenarios, cash use will likely be the decider, determining whether people face a black day for businesses, or merely an inconvenient near-miss for the books. Simply put: it is important to value cash, as it cannot crash.
Cash in the cyber-world
Cash also cannot be hacked. Given the terrifying rise in cyber-attacks and ransomware incidents, many people are understandably sceptical about digital stores of value.
“In the digitalized system, it is easy for someone in Russia, China, whatever, to just shut it off,” according to Björn Eriksson, the former head of Interpol. “[Cash] you can hide in your car, or your stove, or whatever,” he highlights.
Many bankers and business people are also concerned about the trends in cybercrime; they are aware, following research, that the only truly robust means of payment is the banknote. All the rest can be ‘turned off,’ as it were.
With all of these different dimensions in mind, the status of cash as a critical resource becomes self-evident. All the same, whether cash remains available to the public in the coming years might be determined largely by how hard people try in getting their voices heard.