Spying on Everyone in the World: Bitcoin and the Orwellian Warning
A piece in Time plots the plight of Venezuelan refugees streaming into Colombia after watching their national currency, the bolívar, dissolve into toilet paper.
Penned in 2018 by Alex Gladstein, the chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation, the article analyzes how hyperinflation and authoritarian governments push radical alternatives to the foreground.
“Venezuela isn’t the only place where people can use Bitcoin as an escape valve. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe printed endless amounts of cash and inflated the savings of his citizens into nothing, but his successors can’t print more bitcoin.
In China, Xi Jinping can track all of your transactions on Alipay and WePay, but he cannot orchestrate mass surveillance on all Bitcoin payments. In Russia, Vladimir Putin can target an NGO and freeze its bank account, but he can’t freeze its Bitcoin wallet. In a refugee camp, you might not be able to access a bank, but as long as you can find an Internet connection, you can receive bitcoin, without asking permission and without having to prove your identity.”
Today Gladstein argues that Bitcoin will always exist as a means to exchange value. Acting as a global safety net, it may one day catch another group of people on the run: comfortable people, people who currently live in relatively stable countries, the very people who see no real need for Bitcoin or any decentralized currency that stretches beyond their government’s grasp.
That’s because China is creating the playbook on restriction and the modern, digital tools needed to control people around the world.
For countries like China, Bitcoin remains the ultimate wrench in the wheel. Says Gladstein,
“Bitcoin is a huge problem for them because it ruins their plans. It is a digital currency that they cannot control that is beyond their micro surveillance and is likely to get more difficult to control. So I guess the solace or the little silver lining for civil rights activists or anyone who is trying to push back against injustice, will be that Bitcoin will always exist and will always be an option. And even with peer-to-peer trading, you’ll always be able to access it.
So even in the most Orwellian circumstance, you could still meet up with someone in China and invite them over to my place and they could help me with ‘homework’ or something, and I could then pay them with this digital currency. And I could just write, ‘Oh, it was for homework.’ But on the side, they’re sending me Bitcoin and the Chinese government doesn’t know about it. So I think there will always be a way for us to have this sort of parallel economy.”
Gladstein brought his message to this year’s SlushHQ summit in Helsinki, Finland, where 25,000 people gathered from around the world, including 3,500 startups and 2,000 investors, to discuss how to build successful companies by harnessing new technologies for future economies.
He references a fictional future that has already arrived for hundreds of millions of people. It’s the future described by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1984, 35 years ago, where people only possess the thoughts in their minds, as everything else has been confiscated.
Gladstein explores the intentions behind China’s social credit system, which culls financial data from social media platforms and other public portals in order to draft a detailed profile of an individual to then dictate one’s financial options and freedoms, determining “what kind of loans you can get; what kind of internet you can get; what kind of schools your children can go to.”
“Don’t think this couldn’t happen in your country. It will be spreading around the world.”