WikiLeaks exposed the NSA’s dragnet surveillance. Edward Snowden’s leaks prompted much-needed U.S. privacy reforms, but also exposed things that should have remained secret, like anti-terror sources.
Now, something similar is happening. But this time, it’s private individuals and companies in the spotlight. A cache of bank account data was stolen from a Panamanian financial service company, totaling 150 times the amount of data leaked by Snowden. Publication of the “Panama Papers” has prompted a heated debate about cracking down on the ability to “hide money” in “offshore” bank accounts.
Predictably, anti-corporate activists and tax-happy politicians like President Obama are up in arms, calling for tighter controls on international financial flows — to make sure the Taxman everywhere gets his due. Of course, they’re not asking why people move money “offshore” — escaping confiscatory taxation, the gradual devaluation of fiat currencies, or, in extreme cases like Cyprus, governments simply seizing bank accounts overnight to bail themselves out.
But all this focus on taxes and money misses the bigger picture: the future of money and privacy are tied up in the Internet itself. And the essence of the Internet is disruption—i.e., disruption of governments and private companies alike, unsettling both good and bad aspects of the status quo.
There will doubtless be leaks like this in the future—not just at offshore banks, but the banks everyone uses. An arms race is starting. The “progressives” who want a crackdown on “tax cheats” today should think a little more critically about what’s really happening here.
To start, governments like Russia and China are suppressing the Panama Papers story — because it reveals the corruption of government officials and their cronies who raid their national treasuries and store the money offshore. Such censorship will prove increasingly difficult to enforce completely: anyone who really wants to explore the outside world can figure out how to do so. Yet both governments have mastered the art of making information just hard enough to get that most people don’t care.
The big question is: will it be the same way with Bitcoin and other digital currencies? Today’s “going offshore” may be tomorrow’s “going online:” if you can convert your currency into Bitcoin, it will be hard for governments to trace it. In theory, better cryptography could do what libertarians have always dreamed of: break the state’s monopoly over money. Not just plutocrats but ordinary individuals could hide their money from the state, both to protect their privacy and to defend their life savings.
But there are at least three problems.
Real-world IDs could re-establish government control.
First, governments everywhere are trying to maintain control over the currency conversion interfaces — the real-world businesses that convert money into, and out of, Bitcoin. In the name of stopping money laundering, drug trafficking and terrorism, they’re creating an architecture of control that parallels the old tools of censorship. Some amount of that’s inevitable. But if they go far enough, Bitcoin will reduce rather than promote financial privacy — because of the privacy paradox of Bitcoin: every transaction ever made is public, but the accounts can be pseudonymous. Once the accounts are linked to real-world IDs, governments can track everything.
Bitcoin isn’t fail-safe.
Second, data breaches will happen to Bitcoin companies, too. Most famously, someone stole $450 million worth of Bitcoin from Mt Gox, a Japanese Bitcoin exchange, back in 2014. Bitcoin has substantially improved its security features since then to make such heists substantially harder than, say, the theft of credit card data at Home Depot or Target. But if there is a “Mt Gox + Panama Papers” scandal, it wouldn’t be about how much plutocrats have socked away. It’ll be about what millions of ordinary people spend their money on. And, while no security system is every perfect, if this happens, it’ll be because excessive government-mandated financial surveillance has crippled the privacy and cybersecurity advantages that Bitcoin has in reinventing security from the ground up, over the antiquated credit card system. Ironically, regulators tend to recreate the honey pots of personal information that hackers inevitably crack and exploit in the payment systems that Bitcoin is trying to disrupt.
Bitcoin will likely democratize the “offshore account.”
Finally, if such breaches do occur, they’ll probably sound more like today’s Panama Papers scandal — on a far larger scale. That’s because people probably won’t save their money in Bitcoin, a highly volatile currency. They’ll use Bitcoin to transfer their money out of high-tax, snooping, unstable and authoritarian countries — just as migrant laborers will use it to cheaply send money home, avoiding today’s outrageous currency transaction fees. And in both cases, they’ll have to convert money back into local currencies. One way or another, Bitcoin will democratize the “offshore account.”
So… in the future, it won’t be the bottom 99 percent complaining that the top 1 percent has too much financial privacy. It’ll be everyone — complaining that we don’t have enough of it. And financial “privacy” will come to mean financial security… and freedom itself.