Financial Surveillance: Today’s way of transacting may be tomorrow’s buyer’s remorse



This article is of a general nature and for information purposes only.  It is not intended as financial, legal, or wealth management advice of any sort.  Please seek professional advice on concerns or strategies regarding these matters. 

Introduction: Singing from the same hymn sheet

Like every encroachment on our privacy governments support their proposed policy or law as being in the name of improving public safety, national security, or general law enforcement.  However, when these various policies are proposed, rarely is evidence of their success from another country drawn upon to prove the worth of the policy.  Here’s three examples nearest at hand:

  • The Patriot Act: ‘Give up some of your privacy to help us find and fight domestic terrorists’
  • COVID tracing apps: ‘Give up some of your privacy to help us “return to normal” / have a safe community back’
  • Growth of ‘Smart Cities’: ‘Let us watch your movements in public to help us fight crime’

Today’s issue doesn’t deviate from the usual hymn sheet.  The various measures within Financial Surveillance discussed today are touted as solutions to:

  • Being able to track, monitor, expose, and incriminate those involved in organised crime, human trafficking, child pornography, and other criminal activities
  • Being able to identify and prosecute tax fraud and money laundering
  • Reducing the size of the Black Economy

Suffice to say every moral, law abiding citizen supports fighting these crimes and putting criminals, paedophiles, and gangsters in jail for their disgraceful or revolting participation in society.  It’s therefore really important to highlight that our opposition to measures of Financial Surveillance come strictly from the perspective of protecting individual privacy. 

We will question whether some measures do as they promise, encourage the reader to think critically about the trade-offs, and what the future may look like. 

Tangible money – digital money

Broadly speaking money is controlled by central banks and government policy determined by each country’s system of governance (democratic, authoritarian, etc) and their nationalistic ideals whilst being volatile to internal and external economic conditions.

The current system of money has become digitised in recent decades as societies move toward becoming cashless.  Electronic transactions rule today with the rise of ‘tap & pay’ convenience and instant money transfers.  Cash is deliberately being taken out of use– even during the COVID-19 pandemic an opportunity wasn’t lost to label cash as a dirty disease-ridden carrier of the Coronavirus. 

Fundamentally though, cash is one of the last remaining viable representations of value in which individuals can transact with one another without a third-party intermediary privy to the transaction.  As we move away from cash, not only do we introduce an intermediary into the transaction, the digital nature of this intermediary allows for arbitrary rules to be put up.  Rules about how one can spend their money and move toward building a model which allows for the surveillance of every dollar

Impacts on (financial) privacy

The removal of having financial privacy by government controlled financial surveillance imposed on digital transactions undermine many other freedoms we enjoy and our ability to exercise other human rights is significantly eroded as well.  Let’s unpack this statement. 

There are three main ways you may be monitored or tracked via your financial activities currently:

  • Collation of your associations, networks, affiliations, clubs, political parties you pay to become part of or donate to
  • The content of your purchases and subsequent profiling of you based on the subscriptions you have, the books you purchase, your areas of interest, your vulnerabilities and fears (insurance policies for example)
  • The location of your purchases which creates a record of the location, date and time of each purchase.  As discussed in Crisis Surveillance your data has value at scale so in essence it is possible for you to be tracked via your bank account.

One of the finest examples in recent times have been the scenes witnessed within the Hong Kong protests.  The first uprising in 2015 saw protestors identified by analysing their financial activities in paying for subway / metro cards electronically.  The government was able to establish the movement of individuals this way and other ways we discussed in our article on protesting privately.  In response, the 2019 protestors formed long lines at ATMs to use cash to buy paper tickets rather than electronic cards to travel.  This is one example of how financial surveillance can be subverted by using cash, which as we said earlier is intentionally being pushed out of favour by governments around the world. 

A government which imposes financial surveillance gains power which they can use to monitor the activities of political rivals, dissidents, and even rival campaigns.  Reading this one may think this type of power overreach is more appropriate to countries like China or North Korea however we invite the reader to do some further reading on the some of the following examples made by Andreas M. Antonopoulos in the quote below.  As you read it, recall the point earlier about the collation of your associations and memberships when considering:

“How about Catalonia, right? How about the ability of a Spanish government to apply those kinds of extrajudicial controls over people who associate with the Catalan Independence Party, or rights in the UK with a Scottish devolution movement, or a Northern Irish and Irish devolution movements, and all of those things. So even in free societies, the power given to governments to control is enormous, and financial surveillance is one of the most powerful tools they have.” Andreas M. Antonopoulos (1)

Cash restrictions

Most readers have experienced going to a bank to withdraw cash beyond an ATM withdraw limit – a few thousand to purchase a used vehicle for example.  Often you’re met with a bank employee asking you what the money is for (as if that’s any of their business), photocopying ID, completing paperwork, and you losing the better part of an hour just to access your own money!  This process is all part of Know Your Customer which are guidelines part of banks anti-money laundering policies. 

Once you do finally access your own money in cash form many governments are putting up more barriers.  In Australia, the government is set to introduce a $10,000 cash payment limit after it was waved through the Senate earlier this year.  This means payments to businesses with an ABN over $10,000 could no longer be made using cash, though individual to individual transactions or businesses without an ABN are exempt (for now).  It’s worth pointing out the law is unable to capture cryptocurrencies – long labelled the preferred currency of criminals – the very people governments claim to be targeting with these and similar measures.  Here are a couple of quotes from Australian politicians opposing the bill:

“By criminalising the use of legal tender … this government is blithe to the fundamental freedoms provided by hard currency, and is instead laying down a path towards surveillance capitalism and negative interest rates,” Senator Peter Whish-Wilson (2) (2)

“Restricting people’s ability to purchase products with cash and forcing them to use banks or other financial intermediaries for purchases over $10,000 is an unreasonable restriction on their personal freedom” MP Rebekha Sharkie (3)

As we said at the start of this article, governments tend to justify privacy eroding laws in the name or law & order.  The Australian government of course appealed for public support saying the laws will help fight the Black Economy.  The Australian governments definition of the Black Economy is linked here and the Wikipedia page linked here for further reading if you’re interested. 

However, a 2017 study by Leandro Medina and Freidrich Schneider titled Shadow Economies around the World: New results for 158 countries over 1991-2015 had some interesting findings.  Namely, of those 158 countries, Australia’s black economy is ranked 10th smallest and the rankings show cash use is not relevant to the size of a country’s Black Economy.  Indeed, the report shows Japan has the highest cash use in the world but an even smaller black economy than Australia.  Furthermore, countries such as Italy, France, Spain, Sweden and Denmark which have even stricter cash restrictions have bigger black economies than Australia!

Big government & big finance

Governments appear to be great at proposing laws which impede our privacy and/or freedoms in the name of law and order however the execution usually provides a result somewhere between underwhelming and abject failure.  Without going down a rabbit hole here we can reflect on the effectiveness of COVID-19 tracing apps and The Patriot Act against this statement. 

Governments around the world appear to be pushing for more financial surveillance of individual citizens however stop and think about their conduct and the conduct of their banks.  Here are some broad points which we want to touch on but elaboration would be outside of the scope of today’s piece.  We just want to show their hands aren’t clean when it comes to the financial crimes and financial mismanagement they claim to be fighting:

Michael Andrew, Chair of the board of Taxation and Chair of the Black Economy Task Force believes we should move to:

“…actually shift from a cash to a non-cash society where we can therefore monitor and measure people’s activities” Michael Andrew (4)

He went on to suggest a bit of social engineering for good measure:

“how do you change behaviours? How do you actually tell people you’re part of the problem? You’re paying cash to your nanny, your personal trainer, your gardener, your window cleaner, and how can we actually stop tradies offering discounts for cash and make it a socially undesirable issue Michael Andrew (4)

To summarise this then: everyday individuals are not using cash to grow the black economy, commit financial crimes, evade taxes to a volume of funds that would greatly benefit society and generally aren’t getting slapped with multi-million dollar fines for money laundering.  However, their financial privacy is being eroded by financial surveillance tools proposed and supported by those (big government and big finance) who are appearing complicit in some of the financial crimes they’re claiming to be fighting. 

Where are we heading?

Approximately 90-92% of currency today is digital and completely intangible with approximately 8%-10% being cash.  Cash is being eradicated and what’s left is being hit with strict limits as to how much you can withdraw and what you can use it to purchase.  Governments now have almost fully centralised control and access to tools allowing them to monitor most electronic transactions.  This can lead to a future, in the very worst-case scenario, where a bad election result and subsequent uprising and revolution sees a democracy become authoritarian.  A new authoritarian government can then borrow the Chinese nationalist model that will see any financial transaction in support of opposing ideals have ones (yours) status (employment, housing, purchasing power, etc) very negatively impacted indeed. 

Control of what you can and can’t spend your hard-earned money on is already happening.  Known as the Banking Blockade, Visa & Mastercard suspended payments to WikiLeaks in 2010.  Though it was overturned a few years later it’s obvious the tools and power to do it exist so it can happen again.  In the future this could be a cause close to your heart such as environmental groups, animal rights groups, groups helping North Korean defectors get to South Korean embassies, etc. 

It’s worth noting that the above example about Wikileaks didn’t involve financial surveillance by the US government of Visa & Mastercard transactions directly.  However, in simple terms, the US Department of Justice said to Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, and AMEX if they continue to do business with WikiLeaks that they will commence an avalanche of aggressive auditing and commence cutting ties with them.  That extra judicial coercion was enough to see WikiLeaks completely cut from the current financial system. 

What you can do

Given transacting online is now our preferred way of buying and selling products and services it’s difficult to think we will go back to something used in the past.  Therefore the 21st century needs a 21st century system of internet money that is censorship resistance and between the transacting parties only.  The cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are leading the way in this space but are far from being universally accepted or replacing the current system

As much as it may be a pain in the rear end, a return to using cash is the simplest thing you can do to minimise the pool of data your bank can store about you, track you with, and build a profile on.  Other options tend to be expensive or only available to high net-worth individuals (such as bank secrecy agreements).  We have written a How-To Guide: How to shop online privately with some additional options and information for you to consider.

We cannot and do not provide legal advice, please refer to the Financial Privacy laws in your residing jurisdiction to see how you are protected or exposed against unlawful access to your financial accounts by governments and if your bank can reveal financial data to third parties. 

The pragmatist voice still needs to suggest though, that whilst many democratic countries in the world have laws in place to prevent government mass surveillance of their own citizens this legal hurdle too can be overcome.  Many countries have bilateral agreements for the sharing of intelligence between themselves.  Simply put the spying, surveillance, and other intrusions of privacy can be ‘outsourced’ so to speak and your government still has access to the data through shared databases and international intelligence networks.  See our article on the Five Eyes and Operation Ironside / Trojan Shield for more on these agreements and workarounds.


There are a lot of themes in today’s piece which is to date our longest piece of content!  For that reason, we won’t summarise all of that within our usual one to two concluding paragraphs.  The final thought we would like to leave you with is an extension to the above regarding what you can do. 

Be an advocate, write to your local politicians and let them know the public is taking notice of their various intrusions on our privacy each time a new law which erodes our privacy is proposed.  Tell them their stock standard supporting argument of ‘it’s for the benefit of law and order‘ has rarely worked before so that no longer cuts it.  Educate yourselves further (we’ve included some links for further reading below) and most importantly always think about what this can look like in the future!  The starting point may seem nonthreatening but does the path lead to a deep, dark forest?  Will we be able to spend our hard-earned money the way we want to in 25 years without the fear of an adverse consequence?


1. Quote by Andreas M. Antonopoulos in Defiance with Peter McCormack (Podcast) Episode 12: Interview with Andreas M. Antonopoulos

2. Quote by Senator Peter Whish-Wilson

3. Quote by MP Rebekha Sharkie

4. Quotes by Michael Andrew

Further reading

Look through the various links within the article and on top of that here are links to some other sources we came past in our research worth a read for more information:

Defiance with Peter McCormack (Podcast) Episode 12: Interview with Andreas M Antonopoulos:

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