As more people use less physical currency—replacing bills and coins with cards and apps—governments and central banks worldwide are increasingly able to see into our economic lives. And in authoritarian countries especially, that means an ever-expanding ability to surveil and control citizens. Digitized money becomes another way to crush dissent, and governments can better monitor accounts and transactions to spot any economic activity that threatens or displeases the state. Will cryptocurrency change this game?

According to Alex Gladstein, the chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), pro-democracy figures and movements—such as Alexei Navalny in Russia or street protesters in Burma—can escape the financial panopticon by using Bitcoin, an encrypted, open-source digital currency. Moreover, pro-democracy organizations such as HRF—or even the U.S. State Department, or the World Bank—can now financially support pro-democracy activists by sending them bitcoins, which governments can’t easily monitor or trace to any specific user. Gladstein also sees people buying Bitcoin in countries suffering from high inflation, as it can function effectively as a savings account protected from the fluctuations in the value of national currencies. Still, creating new bitcoins requires massive amounts of energy, and the price of Bitcoin is, and will remain, highly volatile for some time—though for Gladstein, these complications are dwarfed by the cryptocurrency’s globally transformative potential.

Michael Bluhm: You refer to Bitcoin as “freedom money” or a technology of liberation, as the move away from physical money creates the opportunity for more surveillance and control. What are the dangers of using cards and apps instead of paper money and coins?

Alex Gladstein: We’re at the outset of great digital financial transformation, where the money we use on a daily basis is evolving from a bearer asset—one that doesn’t reveal anything about us—into a mechanism of surveillance and control.

This is more urgent for some people in this world, and maybe less urgent for others, depending on the political regime they live under. When I’m looking at this new form of money that’s not controlled by governments or corporations, I’m thinking about the big picture of today’s world, where we have 4.2 billion people living under authoritarianism and 1.2 billion people living under double- or triple-digit inflation. When we talk about the fact that money is broken, this isn’t theoretical, and it isn’t just about one country.

It’s much bigger than that. This is a world where hundreds of millions of people deal with 15 percent, 20 percent, 25 percent inflation, where their time and energy, and the currency that they earn their wages in, is literally disappearing.

At the same time, you have billions of people whose bank accounts can potentially be frozen based on their opinions or ideas.

Regarding surveillance and control, the head of the Bank of International Settlements [BIS] explains very clearly on video that we have certain privacy and freedoms with cash. But with central-bank digital currencies, central banks will have, he literally says, absolute control. And then he pauses for dramatic effect.

Pexels / The Signal

It’s kind of chilling, because this is not a mask slip. This is what they want—and they’ve been very clear about that. If you read any sort of central-bank research papers or monetary experts who talk about the direction of money in the future, it’s fairly clear that they don’t want to give you the rights you had with paper money. You’re going to be controlled.

This isn’t some tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory. This is, as a matter of fact, the head of the BIS saying, Banks are going to have absolute control over money, whereas they didn’t before.

Bluhm: So how is Bitcoin or cryptocurrency different than state-issued fiat currencies like the U.S. dollar?

Gladstein: Bitcoin is a nongovernmental currency. Its monetary policy was set in stone by its creator, Satoshi Nakamoto [a pseudonym for the person or group who developed the idea]. And its issuance is publicly known and unchanging. There is a certain amount of Bitcoin that gets minted every 10 minutes, as a reward for the miners who secure and process the transactions. That’s currently at 6.25 Bitcoin. Over the years, that will drop ultimately to zero Bitcoin by the year 2140.

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