The Telegraph‘s Lauren Almeida has interviewed the former head of Interpol, Björn Eriksson, who says his chief security concern now is the erasure of cash, as worries grow about the vulnerability of electronic payment systems to attack. Here’s an excerpt.
It may seem strange for such a senior former security professional to be involved in the fight to keep coins and notes.
Indeed, Eriksson admits his campaign to preserve cash was once a fringe movement, dismissed as a group of “naïve” luddites fighting against the tide. Most Swedes stopped carrying cash years ago – note and coin transactions account for around 1% of gross domestic product.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed everything. “People started to realise that it is very easy for Vladimir Putin to switch everything off,” he says. “At first we were arguing for vulnerable people, the elderly, women in abusive relationships who rely on cash. They were handicapped by not sitting at the top positions.
“Now we are talking about national security. And it’s not only Putin, it could also be organised crime. Suddenly we have another type of argument, another group of politicians who are entering the scene.”
Legislators across the continent are beginning to take the matter more seriously: the European Commission has drafted laws that would ensure acceptance of and access to euro banknotes, so that anyone who wanted to pay with cash could do so.
“If the EU makes this decision … well, the Swedes are known for obeying. The British are a different story,” he laughs.
Britain is not far behind Sweden in its transition to a digital economy – here too cash is disappearing fast. Last year just 14% of payments were made using cash. A decade ago the figure was 54%.
But for millions of people this is not just a matter of convenience: it is about a lack of choice. More than 600 banks are due to close by the end of this year, leaving only around 4,000 across the whole of the U.K. In Sweden, the number of bank branches handling cash has dropped by half since 2017 to around 300.
“It is not about stopping cards,” Eriksson says, as he shows me a wallet stuffed with plastic. “I love cards and use them a lot, but the key point is we need to have an option.
“In Ukraine they have been able to defend their digital solutions. But they would never say ‘we do not like cash’ because it is important to have different options when the Russians attack. So even a country at war can have cash together with digital.”
Reliance on digital payments could put the whole nation at risk in the event of a cyber attack or electrical blackout, he adds.