Total anonymity or enhanced privacy for payments?

Anonymity in payments is a complicated topic with no easy answers. There are those who favour complete anonymity, and then there are those who see that position as dangerous. Even the regulators aren’t too sure about which way to turn, as evidenced in the US Government Accountability report on “Emerging Regulatory, Law Enforcement, and Consumer Protection Challenges” (May 2014). It concluded, “that virtual currency systems “may” provide greater anonymity than traditional payment systems.”

Fintech expert David G.W. Birch, who has been pondering the issue for some time, and who has a ‘pseudonymity’ solution, examines it by looking at lottery winnings. He cites the case of a US lottery winner who took a case to court (as Jane Doe) because she wanted to retain privacy about her winnings. Why was she so desperate to do that? Perhaps another case Birch tells about explains it: “In November 2015, Craigory Burch Jr. matched all five numbers in the Georgia Fantasy 5 drawing and won a $434,272 jackpot only to be murdered in his home by seven masked men who kicked in his front door.”

However, in the case of Jane Doe it is clear that even if she managed to keep her winnings private, some people would know about it, namely the lottery people and her bank. As Birch says, “Being anonymous is really difficult in an infrastructure that has no anonymity.” On the other hand, if you have an anonymous system it is relatively easy to add non-anonymity to it if desired.

So, if we are designing future infrastructures, should they allow for the kind of anonymity the lottery winner wanted? Birch gives the example of New Hampshire, which allows people to form anonymous trusts and these trusts can buy lottery tickets. However, the money still has to go to a bank account.

Cryptographics could be the answer. For example, if you win the lottery, your money can be sent to your cryptocurrency address (which is in the ticket) without the lottery owner or anyone else having the slightest idea to whom it belongs.

However, there is resistance to the idea of electronic money, and central bank digital currencies in particular, to be anonymous. But there is a case for “a privacy-enhancing digital Dollar. This would be very appealing on a global scale in contrast to digital currencies subject to continual state surveillance.”

If that can be achieved, it will be to the advantage of digital currencies.

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