Why payments won’t ever be anonymous

By Felix Salmon
December 16, 2011

I spent Wednesday night in Silicon Valley, at a very geeky discussion of Bitcoin, the unregulated digital currency which managed to get a lot of anarcho-utopians very excited. But Bitcoin fever seems to be on the wane right now, and the number of real-world places where Bitcoins can be spent is still, to a first approximation, zero.

One of the subjects we spent a fair amount of time discussing was the question of chargebacks and reversibility of transactions. Bitcoin was designed to be as cashlike as possible: once it’s spent, it’s gone. As one user discovered in spectacular fashion.

There are good reasons for setting payments systems up in a non-reversible way: it makes things much simpler and easier, for starters, and there is real demand out there for a digital equivalent of cash. On top of that, many Americans are unaware of the rights they have when money is spent on their credit or debit card, by themselves or others.

But consumer-advocacy organizations like Consumers Union are very aware of those rights. And as we move, very slowly, into a world of mobile payments, Consumers Union is trying its hardest to ensure that such payments are as reversible as possible.

Most cell phone and tablet users can purchase digital goods and charge them to their monthly bill or prepaid phone account. But they may not get the protections they need to limit their financial liability if something goes wrong with the transaction…

“Consumers using mobile payments should get the same strong protections they currently enjoy when they make purchases with a credit card or debit card,” said Michelle Jun, senior attorney for Consumers Union, the nonprofit advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “But we found that consumer rights can vary widely between wireless carriers and the protections carriers claim to provide are often nowhere to be found in customer contracts.”

Jeremy Quittner wrote up the Consumers Union findings under the headline “Banks More Consumer Friendly than Carriers for Mobile Payment”:

Banks have been much maligned for nickel-and-diming their customers, but in another area — cardholder fraud protections — they are being praised as consumer champions.

A Consumers Union report released Wednesday shows that protections for purchases that consumers make using their mobile phone numbers are much weaker than those consumers get from standard cardholder agreements regulating their credit or debit card purchases.

I suspect that as the world moves increasingly towards digital and mobile forms of payment, these issues are going to be key in determining how popular those forms of payment become. People are naturally resistant to change, and they still worry much more about spending money online than they do about spending money in much less secure real-world transactions. So long as headlines about digital and mobile payments continue to frame the issue as one of “consumer protection,” the payments industry is going to have to take such things very seriously, even if they run counter to the anarcho-utopian leanings of the geeks developing the underlying technologies.

The tension, of course, comes with regard to anonymity: while cash is perfectly anonymous, other forms of payment are not. And it’s pretty much impossible to create a reversible payments system if the users are completely anonymous.

But that’s OK: if I’m making a payment by swiping my phone, I don’t really feel the need to be anonymous at all. In fact, if the payments system knows not only my identity but also my location when the payment is made, there are lots of ways that it can use that information in ways I could find extremely valuable. We’re seeing this already: various payments companies are putting together systems whereby every time I walk into my local coffee shop, say, I can just pick up my regular order and walk out, and the payment will happen automatically. As will the free coffee I get after paying for ten at a regular price. All I need to do is have my phone in my pocket.

The future of payments, then, is likely to be highly personalized and reversible — exactly the opposite of the anonymous and irreversible protocols built into Bitcoin. And that’s one big reason Bitcoin is not going to be a long-term success.

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