“…financial data is one of the most sensitive forms of data around.”

Sirin Kale reported for The Guardian of 24 Jun 2020:

“…A recent study of more than 2,000 people by the consumer group Which? found that one in 10 people were refused by shops when trying to purchase essential items with cash during the pandemic. Which? has long been calling on the government to protect cash as a payment option, with some success: the chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, pledged to protect access to cash in his 11 March budget.

But that was before coronavirus hit and retailers moved to ban cash transactions because of concerns that coins and notes may spread Covid-19. (Contrary to reports, the World Health Organization never instructed consumers to avoid cash during the pandemic.) Within days of shops starting to close, UK cash usage halved. Signs reading “contactless payment only” became common at tills and petrol stations. “What covid did was push anyone who could go digital to go digital,” says Natalie Ceeney of the Access to Cash Review, an independent body assessing the future of Britain’s cash needs. The UK has been moving towards a cashless economy for some time, with ATM usage declining at about 6% to 10% a year. But Covid-19 supercharged this transition. “During lockdown, cash withdrawals from ATMs were down about 60%,” she says. “That’s a huge drop.”

Those of us who use contactless payment technology routinely scarcely noticed the coronavirus-induced switch to a virtually cashless economy, apart from the limit being increased to £45. But for the approximately 1.2 million people living in the UK who are unbanked – meaning they don’t have access to any bank account – buying essentials became a herculean undertaking. “People without legal immigration status in the UK are not legally allowed to open a bank account,” says James Tullett of the migrant and refugee charity Ramfel. When shops refuse to take cash from these people, they leave them vulnerable to bad actors, Tullett adds. “They are likely to use informal services, which are more open to being exploited.”

It is not only unbanked people who will have struggled during the pandemic. People with bank accounts prefer to use cash for a variety of practical and personal reasons. “Those who rely on cash are the most vulnerable people in our society,” says Ceeney. “They may live in a rural area where they can’t get the decent broadband or mobile signal they need for online banking. Or they may be older or on low incomes.”

Domestic abuse survivors often squirrel away emergency cash – the odd fiver here and there is easy to hide. “Access to cash is really important,” says Nicola Sharp of the charity Surviving Economic Abuse, “both in terms of their ability to flee and their safety after fleeing.” She explains that many abusers monitor bank transactions, leaving survivors reliant on cash. “Measures to go cashless create a context in which it is more difficult for survivors to access the cash they need,” Sharp says.

It is a cruel irony that the people most reliant on cash during the pandemic – older people, who often need cash to reimburse neighbours for shopping – were the people most likely to struggle to access it. About 2.3 million people aged 70 or above don’t have an internet connection at home. Bank and ATM closures in rural areas – at least 3,303 have closed in the past five years – disproportionately affect older people.

Age UK received a surge of phone calls in the third week of lockdown, as older people with diminishing reserves worried about how they would reimburse neighbours and relatives for their food shopping. In response, Barclays, NatWest and Tesco Bank started sending out cash through the post. But some older people were left with no choice but to hand over their bank cards to strangers and trust them to do the right thing.

Consumers and retailers favour contactless payments for hygiene reasons: there is no need for customers to handle chip-and-pin machines. “Covid has been a massive win for the digital payments industry, and the digital world more generally, as people retreat from the physical,” says Brett Scott, author of The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance.

But, as the economy switched to contactless in a matter of days, many people were left behind.

“When we emerge from covid,” says Ceeney, “our cash infrastructure will be even more unviable, and it’s likely we’ll see more bank closures. Shops need to deposit cash. If they don’t have a local bank branch where they can do that, it makes taking cash really difficult. That’s why more retailers are going to go cashless.”

Some would argue that a cashless society is the future; who are we to resist it? …there are ideological reasons to resist going cashless. “The war on cash is a bigger issue than people realise,” says Scott.

The private banking sector, and payment companies such as Visa and Mastercard, want us to stop using cash. “These guys have been battling against cash,” Scott says. “They view cash as a cost.” (By contrast, state-run banks generally try to preserve access to cash.) When we move towards a cashless society, Scott explains, we are locked into the private banking system. “Imagine you go to a casino and you have cash with you – state money,” Scott says. “The casino gives you chips, which you can cash out when you leave. A similar thing goes on in the private banking sector. Every time they close branches or cut ATMs, they’re preventing you from exiting their system. Our ability to exit the banking sector is the single greatest thing that holds banks in check,” Scott says.

The slide towards a cashless economy also raises privacy concerns. “With digital systems, there are huge amounts of data,” Scott says. “When you can see what people are buying, you can start to block payments, chaperone payments, mess with payments … financial data is one of the most sensitive forms of data around.”

This Covid-19-accelerated move to a cashless economy will hurt the most vulnerable in our society the most. “Cash dependence mirrors classic vulnerabilities in terms of income, disability and race,” says Ceeney. People who earn less than £10,000 are 14 times more likely to be dependent on cash than those who earn more than £30,000 a year. “The reason for this is primarily budgeting,” Ceeney explains. “If you’re a gig economy worker, direct debits can be dangerous.

What are the long-term implications of starving a nation of its access to cash? Increased exploitation of unbanked people. Fewer options for women fleeing abusive relationships. People who beg and charities that rely on cash donations disadvantaged. A public locked into a private banking system from which we have no escape and increasingly less autonomy.

“Cash is really the bicycle of payments,” says Scott. “It preceded the car and is still popular today. We need to have a multimodal form of payment systems … cash and card working together, just as bicycles and car lanes go together.” Because, although cash may be a pain to carry around sometimes, it is actually pretty useful.”

The BBC News website reported two days ago:

“Tesco has opened its first checkout-free store in central London where people can shop without having to scan a product.

The UK’s biggest retailer said its branch in High Holborn has been converted to allow customers to shop and pay without using a checkout. 

The new format, known as GetGo, follows similar stores opened by Amazon.

Customers with the Tesco.com app will be able to pick up the groceries they need and walk straight out again.

Tesco said “a combination of cameras and weight sensors” would establish what customers had picked up and charge them for products directly through the app when they left the shop. 

The technology is provided by Israeli tech start-up Trigo, which has similar partnerships with supermarkets in Germany and the Netherlands.

Previously, some of Tesco’s staff have been able to use the system in the store at its headquarters in Welwyn Garden City, but this is the first time it has been available to regular customers.

Kevin Tindall, managing director of Tesco Convenience, said: “Our latest innovation offers a seamless checkout for customers on the go, helping them to save a bit more time. 

“This is currently just a one-store trial, but we’re looking forward to seeing how our customers respond.”

However, Tesco is not the only supermarket experimenting with till-free tech in the UK.

Richard Lim, chief executive of retail analyst group Retail Economics, said Tesco’s move was “reflective of the way the wider industry is heading”.

Amazon Fresh now has six “just walk out” stores in London, having initially rolled out the technology in 2018 in the US city of Seattle, for example.

“One critical element of this for Tesco is also about gaining data and trying to elevate their proposition as much as they can for their customers,” Mr Lim added.

The firm’s Clubcard programme already has 6.6 million users on its app, so the retailer is “well ahead of the curve” when it comes to using information on what a customer buys, or how they shop, to personalise their experience, Mr Lim says.

The supermarket has also benefited from a swing to online shopping during the pandemic.

According to its most recent set of results, Tesco’s group revenues jumped by 5.9% to £30.4bn for the six months to August compared with the same period last year.”

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