Any future European digital currency should ensure users’ payments cannot be tracked, according to respondents to a European Central Bank survey who highlighted the importance of privacy in any future monetary innovation.
More than 40 per cent of the over 8,200 respondents to the consultation about a digital euro said their priority was for payments to remain “a private matter”, reflecting the deep attachment of many Europeans to the anonymity of cash.
The responses prompted calls for the digital euro — which the ECB defines as central bank money available digitally to all parties — to have cash-like features that would permit offline use without internet access.
The ECB’s consultation of citizens and professional groups is part of its work to build support for its efforts to keep up with the rapidly changing world of digital currencies and payments. It will announce by the middle of this year whether it will press ahead with preparations for launching its own digital currency.
Fabio Panetta, an ECB executive board member, told MEPs on Wednesday that the currency could be ready to launch in about five years.
“Electronic payments are becoming increasingly popular, so a digital euro would ensure that sovereign money — a public good that central banks have been offering to citizens for centuries — remains available in the digital era,” he said. “A digital euro would not mean the end of cash. It would complement cash, not replace it.”
In much of Europe, cash is still used for the majority of payments in shops and cafés, and the ECB consultation revealed a suspicion that a digital euro could open the door for companies to profit from people’s payments data and for governments to spy on their financial activity.
The central bank said “most citizens” who responded to its consultation expressed a preference for a digital currency that was restricted to offline transactions, even if that limited the amount of innovative services that could be provided.
“When confronted with a specific choice between an offline digital euro focused on privacy, an online one with innovative features and additional services, and a combination of the two, citizen respondents generally opt for an offline solution focused on privacy, while professional respondents consider a hybrid approach more appealing,” it added.
While privacy was the priority of most respondents, Panetta said they still “understand the trade-offs that are necessarily imposed by the introduction of a digital euro”, in particular the need to respect laws preventing illicit activities such as money laundering or terrorist financing.
He said a digital euro could not be completely anonymous because of the need to impose limits on the amounts each person can hold “to safeguard financial stability and banking intermediation by preventing excessive capital flows or excessive use of the digital euro as a form of investment”.
The ECB has been testing “bearer instruments” to store smaller amounts of digital euros on hardware devices so they could be used in offline transactions without needing an internet connection or the involvement of a third party.
In another experiment, the central bank tested tools to detach a person’s identity from their payments using digital euros via “a decentralised ledger” — the blockchain technology behind cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.
Panetta said: “Our preliminary experimentation on a digital euro is showing promising results on how technology can be used to protect user privacy without relaxing standards against illicit activities.”