One of the most common values that consumer-facing corporations have been pimping in recent decades is convenience... This was readily apparent in the earlier discussion of the appeal of Amazon, a company built upon leveraging convenience through economies of scale. It is also clear that contactless payments have taken off precisely because of the immense amenity of paying by simply tapping plastic against a small payment robot. No longer does it take a whole thirty seconds to enter your pin and dial up, now you just tap and go. Who could possibly complain?
Well, the most vocal objections to contactless payments have been raised in connection with their magnificent potential for fraud. The BBC reported £7 million of fraudulent payments within the UK in 2016, up from £2.8 million in 2015. There is a clear sense of this technology being cyber-insecure, since anyone who steals or acquires a suitable card can use it freely to pay for anything. Even at a cap of £30, large spends can be racked up in days, and the possibility of ‘skimming’ (cloning the radio frequency ID) is occasionally used to scare up panic, although at a required range of about ten centimetres this particular scenario seems somewhat fanciful, and the fraud department I spoke to about this didn’t even consider it a possibility. Besides, in all these cases of petty fraud, the banking organisations behind the cards cover these loses and can easily afford to do so, with the risk to the consumer largely resting in their not checking their transaction list for items they did not authorize.
This year, the media coverage of contactless has focussed less upon fraud and more upon who is now accepting payment this way, which now includes the Churches of England and Scotland, London buskers, and even a vendor of ‘homeless’ magazine The Big Issue. But the prevalence of the payment system – which has overtaken cash in popularity – conceals another concern about its behavioural effects, one no-one is discussing: contactless payments risk being cyber-thriftless, they encourage people to spend more freely, and think less about what they are spending. To be sure, the move away from cash in favour of payment cards already created these conditions for profligate spending by divorcing transactions from the immediate capacity to track your personal money that cash provides. This is offset by easier accounting for those who choose to investigate later – but it’s not clear how many people this applies to.
Say what you will about coins and notes, when you have to get your money in advance by transacting with a bank (these days, mostly indirectly via ATM robots, as discussed in the previous piece), you are aware of how much money you have, and how much you have spent. The contactless cyborg gives up the immediate awareness of what you are doing with your money in return for greater convenience. I suppose at this point, we can hardly be surprised.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #27