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Digital Dollar and Tensions Over Transaction-Monitoring

Bloomberg Law | Andrea Vittorio  | Apr 3, 2023

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While the US government weighs whether to launch a central bank-backed virtual currency, civil liberties advocates and libertarians are pushing for a digital dollar that’s shielded from surveillance and offers similar anonymity to cash.

  • Interest in a digital dollar is fueled in part by the advent of alternatives like cryptocurrencies and the coronavirus pandemic-driven shift toward more cashless transactions.
  • The privacy a digital dollar affords will depend on design decisions such as how transactions are recorded, how users’ identities are verified, and how virtual wallets work. Details like these would determine how closely transactions could be tracked, either by law enforcement looking out for illicit financial dealings or by private sector firms interested in consumers’ buying habits.
    • Digital rights advocates are concerned about the private sector's ability to track and sell consumers' financial data. Brokers can collect transaction data and build profiles that reveal private information about individuals.

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  • The US is among about 100 countries and currency unions that are exploring the possible use of virtual money issued by a central bank that’s not printed or minted like traditional tender, according to a tracker from the Atlantic Council. Skeptics have dubbed China’s deployment of a digital yuan a “surveillance coin” because it could allow the government to more easily monitor transactions.
  • Surveillance fears have prompted Republican policymakers, including House Majority Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, to propose legislation halting any US government efforts to issue a digital dollar directly to Americans in a way that could facilitate financial monitoring.
  • The regulation of financial transactions to prevent illicit finance, money laundering, and financing terrorism has made digital transactions less private. The introduction of a digital dollar system could exacerbate the tension between privacy and regulatory functions. Advocates of a "freedom coin" want to prevent undue tracking and surveillance. To balance privacy and illicit finance concerns, tiered reporting requirements could be implemented, but this could make the currency less useful to end-users. Finding ways to reduce such trade-offs with technology is a work in progress.

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