The following is an extract from Nick Corbishley’s new book Scanned: Why Vaccine Passports and Digital IDs Will Mean the End of Privacy and Personal Freedom and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
When the European Union launched its Green Pass initiative in June 2021, it was supposedly intended to reopen the bloc’s borders and make international tourism possible once again. But within months it was being used by many Member States to exclude unvaccinated people from accessing many public spaces and basic services. Italy’s government has used its iteration of the Green Pass to effectively ban almost four million people from being able to earn a living. In Austria the government locked down around two million people for not being vaccinated, before relenting five days later and locking down everyone else.
This has happened despite the fact that the EU’s own Green Pass legislation stipulates that “[t]he issuance of [Covid] certificates… should not lead to discrimination on the basis of the possession of a specific category of certificate.” The Council of Europe, Europe’s preeminent human rights organisation, went even further, arguing not only that no one should be “discriminated against for not having been vaccinated” but also that the vaccination should not be mandatory.
To complement its Green Pass, the EU has already launched a digital wallet that will be used to store peoples’ surnames, first names, dates and place of birth, gender or nationality, as well as enable Europeans to identify themselves online. This is part and parcel of the digital identity revolution being spearheaded by organisations like the World Economic Forum, Gavi, and ID2020.
In a similar vein, the U.K. Government quietly announced on December 27th 2021, just weeks after introducing its vaccine passport system, plans to develop a “digital identity and attributes trust framework” that will “enable employers and landlords (letting agents) to use certified identification document validation technology (IDVT) service providers to carry out digital identity checks on their behalf for many who are not in scope to use the Home Office online services, including British and Irish citizens, from April 6th 2022”.
Once vaccine passport/digital ID systems are established, mission creep is virtually guaranteed. But don’t take my word for it; the French defence contractor Thales Group laid it out in an internal blog authored by its Head of Digital Identity Services Portfolio, Kristel Teyras:
The ambition is huge; both in terms of scale – as it applies to all EU member states – and also in the power it would grant to citizens throughout the Bloc. For the first time, citizens would be able to use a European Digital Identity wallet, from their phone, that would give them access to services in any region across Europe.
Note Teyras’s use of the verb “would be able to” in the second sentence. As German finance journalist Norbert Häring points out, “if we want to remove the gloss . . . we would only have to replace ‘be able to’ with ‘have to.’”
That sounds a bit scarier, doesn’t it?” asks Häring.
One of the companies involved in the development of the U.K.’s COVID-19 vaccine passport, the U.S. IT firm Entrust, said that the vaccine passport system could also be “redeployed” as a national ID card. This is despite the fact that a previous digital ID card scheme was scrapped in 2011 following a public outcry against the intrusion and potential for human rights violations it would entail.
In a blog written shortly before Entrust was awarded a £250,000 contract in May 2021 to provide the cloud software for the U.K.’s vaccine certification system, the company’s product marketing manager Jenn Markey noted that:
Vaccine credentials can become part of the infrastructure of the new normal. … Why not redeploy this effort into a national citizen ID program that can be used for multiple purposes, including the secure delivery of government services, secure cross-border travel, and documentation of vaccination.
‘Digital wallet’ suggests that economic activity could become an integral part of the frameworks’ functions, a prospect that should terrify anyone but which Teyras describes as “really exciting.” The U.K.’s former Prime Minister and leading vaccine passport advocate Tony Blair also raised this possibility in an address to WEF members: “Digital ID can play a part in Covid but also if you think of the transactions that you want to do now with your customers, it’s much simpler for them if they have a digital identity.”
Merging Your Health with Your Money
Many of the same companies and organisations that are driving the roll out of digital IDs are also pressing for the elimination of cash transactions. These companies and organizations include global banks, fintech start-ups, big tech giants, and credit card companies. The European Commission has already announced a plan to cap cash payments at €10,000 across the EU despite fierce opposition among cash-loving countries, such as Austria and Germany.
Of course, in a world of increasing government surveillance and control, cash is one of the last vestiges of personal freedom and privacy we have left.
“Cash gives people a sense of security, independence, and freedom,” said Gernot Blümel, Austria’s former Finance Minister. “We want to preserve that freedom for people.”
Other countries have other ideas, though. Even before the cash limit had been introduced, the French Government was advocating for a lower limit. Norbert Häring describes how this tactic conforms with the recommendations of an IMF paper on ways to abolish cash even in the face of popular resistance, “starting with a high, unoffensive limit and lowering it progressively”.
From the onset of the pandemic, cash has been suggested as a possible vector of infection. In early March 2020, in response to a question about whether banknotes could spread the coronavirus, a World Health Organisation (WHO) spokesperson said: “Yes, it’s possible, and it’s a good question. We know that money changes hands frequently and can pick up all sorts of bacteria and viruses… when possible it’s a good idea to use contactless payments.”
Legacy media outlets pounced on the WHO’s comments and magnified them, sparking fears over the safety of cash. The WHO has since walked back its comments, arguing that it was not advocating for people to abandon the use of cash, only that they should wash their hands after handling it.
Central banks have also attempted to dampen public fears. But at the same time many of those central banks, including the People’s Bank of China, the Federal Reserve Bank, the European Central Bank and the Bank of England, are exploring the possibility of introducing their own central bank digital currencies, or CBDCs, in the near future.
Combining digital currencies with digital IDs while phasing out, or even banning, the use of cash would grant governments and central banks the ability not only to track every purchase we make (and made in the past) but also to determine what we can and cannot spend our money on. They could also prevent certain ‘undesirable’ people from buying anything. Anyone with a blocking notice attached to their digital identity would “thus be unable to do many of the most basic things independently”, says Häring. Central banks could even issue stimulus funds with an expiration date, forcing people to spend rather than save.
Cash and CBDC are a world apart, as Agustín Carstens, the President of the Bank of International Settlements, the central bank of central banks, conceded in an interview:
We don’t know who’s using a $100 bill today and we don’t know who’s using a 1,000 peso bill today. The key difference with the CBDC is the central bank will have absolute control on the rules and regulations that will determine the use of that expression of central bank liability, and also we will have the technology to enforce that.
For central banks the introduction of CBDCs will provide a huge fillip to the power they already wield over the economy. It also means they will enter in direct competition with the banks they are supposed to regulate. Some economists have even warned that high street lenders, particularly smaller ones, could end up going under as savers switch their money into a secure digital account with their respective central bank at the slightest whiff of a financial crisis.
For the public, the benefits are less existent while the risks are huge. In the U.K., a Politico survey of 2,500 adults found Brits “harbour more suspicion about central bank-backed digital currencies (CBDCs) than excitement”. Just 24% of those surveyed believed the digital pound would bring more benefits than harm, while 30% said the opposite; 73% of respondents expressed concern about the threat of cyberattacks and hackers. The prospect of losing payment privacy worried 70%.
Even proponents of CBDCs admit that central bank digital currency could have serious drawbacks, including further exacerbating income and wealth inequality.
“The rich might be more capable than others of taking advantage of new investment opportunities and reaping more of the benefits,” says Eswar Prasad, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of The Future of Money: How the Digital Revolution Is Transforming Currencies and Finance. “As the economically marginalized have limited digital access and lack financial literacy, some of the changes could harm as much as they could help those segments of the population.”
So, not only will the introduction of CBDCs strip global citizens of one of the last vestiges of freedom, privacy, and anonymity (i.e., cash), it could also exacerbate the upward transfer of wealth that many societies have witnessed since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
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