Seeing Through Money: Democracy, Data Governance, and the Digital Dollar
78 Pages Posted: 13 Feb 2023
Date Written: February 10, 2023
Financial technology (fintech) companies partner with U.S. government agencies to provide services to millions of people via thousands of programs. While doing so, they continuously collect data to sort, store, score, share, and sell. Most policymakers, scholars, and industry stakeholders agree this model makes the financial system more inclusive, safe, and accountable, thereby “democratizing finance.” Yet standard operating procedure exacerbates identity fraud, punishment of poor people (especially impoverished people of color), and mass surveillance of the general public without the knowledge, much less consent, of the governed.
We can reconstruct this system. The government is now exploring “Digital Dollars” — money native to government computer systems. Today, commercial banks and fintech companies channel nearly all payments between the government and the public. Some experts argue government agencies should use the Digital Dollar system to simply improve this interface. Other experts argue agencies should bypass private partners and issue Digital Dollars directly to individuals, households, and businesses (perhaps by also offering public bank accounts or digital wallets). However, because of the background laws of digital privacy, both visions would engender unintended social harm.
I take up the challenge of digital privacy and data governance within the Digital Dollar payments system. I first examine the laws and technology that enable the government to engage in mass financial data collection. I then identify the material harms of privacy invasion from the perspectives of consumer law, poverty law, and other bodies of law already defining the lives of precisely the people experts aim to include in a Digital Dollar system.
To mitigate harm, I offer a modular proposal for the U.S. Postal Service to issue new devices for using Digital Dollars. These “smartcards,” similar in size to existing debit cards, would not make payments over the internet. Instead, they would store money on the card hardware. People would use the cards for everyday small-dollar transactions, but the cards would not be capable of generating data that companies and agencies could abuse. By upgrading existing technology, we can build a truly universal and safe “public fintech” system for our exciting digital future.
Keywords: fintech, finance, money, privacy, data governance, technology, cryptocurrency
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation