Kristen Gyles | Jumping on the cashless bandwagon | Commentary – Jamaica Gleaner

When I started high school, there was a rather forceful push for students to start using the school’s cash card to buy lunch, stationery items and other school-sold products, as opposed to using actual cash. We were told all about the many dangers of walking around with wads of cash and we were constantly reminded of how convenient it would be not only for us as students, but for the school, if we only cooperated with the thrust to go cashless. I would have sworn that by 2023, cash would be a thing of the past.
The conversation was in no way limited to school, though. There was a distinct, society-wide thrust to eliminate or at least reduce cash usage. Since then, however, clearly not much has changed. People seem to still prefer seeing the beautiful, printed faces of our national heroes and haven’t quite jumped on the train to the cashless society we have been hearing about.
For completeness, a cashless society is one in which physical currency (such as banknotes and coins) is not used or accepted as a means of payment. Instead, all transactions are made electronically or digitally using things like credit and debit cards (in a not-so-technologically-advanced world) and things like biometric scanners (in the future dystopia where robots run the world).
Perhaps we need to evaluate why movement towards ‘cashless-ness’ is so slow. After all, the safety risks associated with physical cash are obvious, especially in a crime-ridden society.
The resistance is clearly not for want of public education on the benefits of digital payment. We know that, because many years have been dedicated to evangelising the importance of going digital. Furthermore, with the recent ATM robbery attempts, banks and other financial institutions now have a greater arsenal to make the case for customers to use their various e-banking systems. Not only that, but the pandemic also ushered in a new dispensation of technology usage, with many being forced to learn in a matter of weeks, how to do their jobs from home and how to pay their bills from their couches.
Moreover, no one needs to be educated on how convenient it is to not have to physically leave their home in search of a bank or ATM and stand for several minutes waiting in line to retrieve cash that will only make them a prime target for thieves. Clearly then, there are distinct concerns and anxieties associated with the proposed new digital way of life that have clouded out the convenience benefits.
According to the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA), over $12 million is lost due to cybercrime in Jamaica, annually. Somehow, the use of technology in banking, which should make us feel safer, is creating more anxiety for many people. Cashless societies can be safe, but only to the extent that there are measures in place to protect against data breaches, fraud, and other forms of financial crime.
In 2020, the Bank of Jamaica had to investigate data breaches at two local financial institutions, one of which resulted in personal data for over 5,000 customers being emailed to other customers. The leaked data included customers’ names, addresses, tax registration numbers and JCSD account numbers. In the other case, the data breach was caused by a cyberattack which resulted in customers being locked out of the institution’s online system for sometime. In the following year, the data security lapse of the JAMCOVID Website resulted in personal immigration data for over 400,000 travellers to Jamaica being leaked. For some affected users of the Website, the leaked data would have included COVID-19 test results, signatures, and other sensitive information. These are a few of many such incidents.
No system is perfect and some security breaches are next to unavoidable. But why are Jamaicans expected to embrace the digital revolution when there is little assurance that their data can and will be protected? Until Jamaican financial institutions can collectively fortify their online systems, not only against cyber-attacks, but from fraud, scepticism will continue to abound.
Aside from the issue of cyber threats, digital payment systems are also often subject to technical malfunctions and errors. To add to that, too often consumers want to travel a few cash notes lighter, but have to remind themselves that the card machine at the supermarket they last visited was down for the umpteenth time.
So, the consumer finds himself swaddled in ‘macka’ bush. On one hand, banks are now doing away with many of the existing ATMs, and failure to ensure consistent restocking of other ATMs has reduced access to cash. On the other hand, confidence in online banking seems to have waned in light of the apparent increase in financial fraud recently. We don’t feel safe using cash and we don’t feel safe not using cash. And if people don’t feel safe spending either way, there is likely to be some reduction in discretionary spending. This isn’t the best state of affairs for a country on the road to economic recovery from the crippling effects of a three-year pandemic.
If the preferred choice is for Jamaicans to use less cash, greater investment in reliable financial infrastructure including point-of-sale systems and electronic payment terminals, must be put in place to support the widespread adoption of electronic payments. The issue of financial fraud and the damage it has done will also have to be fought head-on. Either way, the breakdown in trust must be repaired.
Kristen Gyles is a free-thinking public affairs opinionator. Sendfeedback to kristengyles@gmail.com.
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