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CBDCs can protect privacy and still tackle crime - BofE's fintech chief

CBDCs can protect privacy and still tackle crime - BofE's fintech chief

The introduction of a central bank digital currency does not necessarily require a tradeoff between privacy and tackling financial crime, according to the Bank of England's fintech chief.

Privacy has been one of the most hotly contested areas of the CBDC debate, featuring heavily in the feedback received by the BofE to its discussion paper on a potential Britcoin.

In a speech last week at the Future of FinTech conference, BofE director of fintech Tom Mutton said that while most respondents agreed that privacy is paramount, what that means in practice generated a wide range of views.

With a handful of exceptions, respondents were generally of the view that anonymity was not desirable, nor particularly realistic in digital payments, given their electronic nature, as well as the importance of reducing financial crime.

Some raised concern about the central bank being able to access information on their payments through a CBDC system.

Mutton believes that preserving privacy and reducing financially crime can both be accommodated within a CBDC system for three reasons: the bank has no commercial incentive to gather user data; choices can be made within a system to protect data; and technologies, such as zero knowledge proofs and digital identity frameworks, could enhance transparency while still increasing security and privacy.

Elsewhere in his speech, Mutton again stressed the BofE's position is that CBDC is of "great interest" but that no decision on whether one is needed has been taken and that if a Britcoin was introduced it would not replace cash.

Listing the potential benefits, he cited supporting a resilient payments landscape, avoiding the risks of new forms of private money creation, supporting competition, efficiency and innovation, improving the availability and usability of central bank money, addressing the consequences of a decline in cash, and helping with better cross-border payments.

As for design principles, the bank is exploring a 'platform model' that would see it provide the core ledger and an API allowing access to regulated private sector firms that would then give access to end users.

Mutton also addressed environmental concerns, noting that the energy consumption of bitcoin is not typical of all blockchain and distributed ledger based approaches.

"In fact, some of these technologies, including those developed to support some forms of private digital money, are potentially in the order of tens of thousands of times more efficient per transaction. So let’s not throw the blockchain baby out with the Bitcoin bathwater," he said.

Comments: (1)

Andrew Smith
Andrew Smith - RTGS & ClearBank - London 22 June, 2021, 16:10Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

FinCrime is complex, and in this platform use case - with CBDCs being used for payment system capabilities, while at the same time allowing people to "hold them" begs the question, who is performing the KYC? Access is very different to ownership - so you would not expect the regulated entities to perform robust KYC on account holders if the liability sits with the BoE in a CBDC.....

There are some fabulous use cases and arguments for CBDCs where such issues are solved or not problems at all. We need to focus on these to bring CBDCs to life, and then look at extended benefits iteratively over time. As ever, it seems we are trying to understand and biol the ocean all at once.....