It was a provocative way to start the biggest cryptocurrency and blockchain event of the year.
In the opening session of Consensus: Distributed this week, Lawrence Summers was asked by my co-host Naomi Brockwell about protecting people’s privacy once currencies go digital. His answer: “I think the problems we have now with money involve too much privacy.”
President Clinton’s former Treasury secretary, now President Emeritus at Harvard, referenced the 500-euro note, which bore the nickname “The Bin Laden,” to argue the un-traceability of cash empowers wealthy criminals to finance themselves. “Of all the important freedoms,” he continued, “the ability to possess, transfer and do business with multi-million dollar sums of money anonymously seems to me to be one of the least important.” Summers ended the segment by saying that “if I have provoked others, I will have served my purpose.”
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That he did. Among the more than 20,000 registered for the weeklong virtual experience was a large contingent of libertarian-minded folks who see state-backed monitoring of their money as an affront to their property rights.
But with due respect to a man who has had prodigious influence on international economic policymaking, it’s not wealthy bitcoiners for whom privacy matters. It matters for all humanity and, most importantly, for the poor.
Now, as the world grapples with how to collect and disseminate public health information in a way that both saves lives and preserves civil liberties, the principle of privacy deserves to be elevated in importance.