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Paying by card convenient, but it leaves a trail of personal data

Caveat: Cash we are told is no longer king, but let’s not consign it to history just yet

If you have ever hired a car abroad, you may have experienced petrol station panic (PSP). This frightening condition is brought on by an inability to refuel the car before you have to return it to the airport with a full tank, raising the risk of being hit with punitive charges.

Classic signs of PSP include tightening of the chest, banging of the steering wheel and uncontrollable swearing while scanning the horizon for a forecourt, pump, or any place at all where you could beg them for a sup of gasolina before you miss the flight.

I spent the first half of this month criss-crossing Portugal on a family holiday. Everything was great, until I got near the airport ahead of returning the car. The fuel gauge read almost empty but Google Maps assured me of a garage en route. No PSP this time, I thought, smugly.

The fuel station was prepay, self-service and the instructions were, naturally, in Portuguese. Fine. How hard can this be? I whipped out about €90 – surely enough for a refill – but I couldn’t find a slot for banknotes. I realised it must be card only. But none of my Irish-issued cards would work.


My chest began to tighten. Hello again, PSP. I scanned the horizon for forecourts. Nothing. I checked Maps, but couldn’t see anything within range that didn’t involve me driving the wrong way up a carriageway. I checked again, and there was still no banknote slot. The automated female voice inside the touchscreen seemed to be mocking me in Portuguese.

As I checked the time, the panic intensified and the swearing soon erupted.

The fuel station was unmanned, but eventually I found a lovely woman on an adjacent premises that I think was a deli. She spoke little English but the panic in my eyes, as I waved around banknotes and gesticulated wildly at the car, told her all she needed to know.

Very kindly, she walked me back to the pump and metaphorically held my hand and guided me through the process. It turned out my foreign bankcard did work, but you had to press a particular button at a certain time in the process, which was unclear on the touchscreen instructions and indecipherable to me from the disembodied Portuguese voice inside. Deli lady saved my skin.

As the PSP and the swearing subsided, I realised that none of this would have happened if only the fuel station had taken my perfectly valid banknotes. I had also struggled to pay a few hefty Portuguese tolls using my foreign bankcard, and was relieved when the automated machines also accepted notes – I’d have been marooned at the barrier otherwise.

European Union data suggests that Ireland, like Portugal, is rapidly moving towards a cash-free system in many spheres. The banks and card companies never shut up about this phenomenon. Be more like the Swedes, they tell us, who have almost consigned cash to the dustbin.

There are now cafes in Dublin that no longer accept cash. The National Transport Authority told a meeting in February that the "ultimate aim" is to make public transport cashless. People, especially millennials, can roam for days without handling as much as a fiver, tapping their Visa Debits or smartphone wallets to cater for every little need.

AIB even hired a "futurologist" last year who predicted that ATMs would become as obsolete as phone boxes, as the need for cash disappears.

The conventional wisdom emanating from the financial services industry is that this incessant drive towards a cashless society is driven by consumer demand. But who, apart from banks and card companies, has ever demanded that the option to pay for things anonymously by legal tender be taken away or rendered obsolete?

Cash needs to be printed, counted, secured and stored. This has a cost, so banks have an obvious vested interest in talking down cash: lower operating costs. Governments, too, have a stake in its demise – no cash means no black markets, and more stuff to tax.

Card usage is indeed sharply on the rise. The latest Payments Monitor bulletin from the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland (BPFI) shows that contactless payments were up almost 60 per cent in the second half of last year, while other card payments rose 21.5 per cent. We are reducing our “cash dependency”, said the bank lobby group, as if legal tender is a dangerous drug like heroin.

Yet drill deeper into the figures, and the conventional wisdom about “consumer demand” doesn’t look so smart. The BPFI reveals the overall volume of ATM withdrawals has remained constant in recent years, while their value in late 2018 had a “surprise” jump of 8.6 per cent , to almost €10 billion from July to December.

In the past two years, banks have slashed their number of ATMs by almost 12 per cent, even though transaction volumes have remained steady and their gross value has increased.

That’s not responding to consumer demand. That’s ramming your desired outcome down your consumers’ throats and coercing them to where you want them to go.

Cash isn’t just for drug dealers, the poor and the elderly and tradesmen on the make. It is a convenient, legal and private way to pay for things without leaving a trail of personal data behind for a company to sweep up, or for authorities to snoop on you.

Imagine if most businesses didn’t accept cash. A digital footprint of your every move and whim in life would be left somewhere in the cloud – where you go, what you eat, everyone to whom you give money for any reason at all.

A cashless society is a surveillance society. There is a reason why China is on its way to becoming cash-free – it is a gift for its authoritarian government.

Yes, tapping for payment can be convenient. But so is cash. The next time your bank tries to tell you that you would like to use less cash, ask it why it is closing its ATMs when they are being used much as ever?


Denis O'Brien has, so far, refused to rise to the repeated colourful provocations of Gaston Browne, the prime minister of the Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda. He must be tempted, though.

Digicel is in a scrap with Antigua’s government, which wants to force the telco to relinquish spectrum to a state-owned rival, APUA, which also happens to be the local telecom market’s regulator. Digicel has enraged the government by taking out an injunction preventing its spectrum from being confiscated.

Like O’Brien, Browne is a radio investor. He even broadcasts his own talk show on his station, Pointe FM, where he often upbraids Digicel. At the weekend, Browne told listeners that he is “hostile” to O’Brien.

“I have been hostile, and I have been hostile to them because I gave the [local] general manager a few choice words to give his principal back in Ireland,” said Browne.

The prime minister also said the government plans to “counter-sue” O’Brien’s company, although he did not say on what grounds.

It will be interesting if O’Brien ends up giving evidence to a court in the ongoing row, given Browne’s personal jibes. It would be entertaining, at the very least.