Worldwide outrage engendered by the SWIFT Affair seems rather quaint today. Operating since 1973, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication is the messaging system that accounts for almost all international financial transactions. Evidence emerged in 2006 that the United States government had been covertly monitoring SWIFT transactions since the late 1990s and in collaboration with SWIFT since 2001.
SWIFT’s collaboration to supply transaction data breached the laws of Belgium (where it is based) and Europe. That European citizens could be subject to such monitoring by a foreign power caused great consternation among both the populace and European governments.
Justifying the enormous collection of the private information of citizens of allied and friendly countries, the US government claimed it was a necessary aspect of terrorism prevention. To avoid the appearance of disunity between NATO allies in the ‘War on Terror’, and to placate an indignant population, the European Union negotiated an agreement to enable US access whilst making provision for minimal privacy for European Union citizens. An agreement which was altogether academic: as Edward Snowden’s 2010 disclosure of classified NSA material demonstrated, the United States resumed clandestine surveillance of SWIFT before the ink on the agreement was dry.
The Social Credit System is popular in China, where efficiencies and fraud prevention are broadly appreciated.
This incident became fertile ground for conspiracy theories among a growing segment of the populace in Western countries, particularly those already suspicious of government overreach in ‘The War on Terror.’
(The populations of non-Western countries, accustomed to the American modus operandi in world affairs, required no such convincing.)
From survivalists in the Appalachian Mountains to billionaires purchasing luxury fallout bunkers in New Zealand, people began to think about ‘what if’, extrapolating contemporary social, political, geo-political and environmental trends to rational yet disconcertingly dystopian conclusions, pessimism exacerbated by the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and resentment at the enormous taxpayer-funded bailouts of the institutions that caused it.
Currency suddenly held people’s attention. Was it evolving from a means of exchange to a mechanism for surveillance? Could it be used to impose social controls on entire societies? What if it was absent altogether? What are the privacy ramifications of obsoleting paper currency?
SWIFT’s collaboration to supply transaction data breached the laws of Belgium (where it is based) and Europe.
No-one needed to look too far for answers to most of these questions. In 2014 the Social Credit System was introduced by the People’s Republic of China to several regions. The excesses of the state and the capabilities inherent in the system became readily apparent to horrified Western observers shortly thereafter. Currently comprised of disparate systems, the objective is for the Social Credit System to coalesce into a consolidated system encompassing the entire country. Underpinning the system is financial transactions (currently the Yuan, in future the Digital Renminbi.)
The Social Credit System is popular in China, where efficiencies and fraud prevention are broadly appreciated. Many of the criticisms of the system as a form of Orwellian control are overstated but not invalid. Suspicious foreign observers rightly point out that while it might not be utilised for that now, it could be in the future. Conversely, observers taking a nation-state perspective began to consider the possibilities for their own societies.
So ended the decade: a growing appreciation by governments for the control inherent in surveillance of financial systems, and a burgeoning section of the populace suspicious of state overreach into private transactions.
Technology is the enabler for all of it, good and ill. As the technology landscape evolves the battle remains the same, between the rising libertarian instincts of the populace and the authoritarian tendencies of the state. Yesterday’s battle was the SWIFT affair. Tomorrow’s battlefield is cryptocurrencies and Central Bank Digital Currencies.
Subjects I’ll address in part II.
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Simon Anderson is a technology consultant from Auckland, New Zealand. He believes in the fundamental right of all people to exercise their democratic rights peacefully, particularly with regard to free speech. Simon came into public consciousness as a video-documentarian during the trans rights counter protests in Auckland during March 2023.