Movie Still from The Godfather

Digital money is a fact of everyday life. It’s used on Amazon.com and eBay to buy goods; it’s used each time you pay for something with your credit card; it’s present when you receive your paycheck via direct deposit. Your loyalty or rewards points? Yep, there too. Even the tools to change cash into digital currency are widely available, where the hardest part of the whole process is going to your local Walmart, CVS, or Duane Reade (if you’re in the Tri-State area).

Not so long ago, things were much different. Getting access to the immense online marketplace was impossible unless you had plastic, and as a junior high and high school student, I had neither a card nor a documented income. I walked dogs, babysat, did grunt work in offices, manual labor, and a few things besides, all for cash-in-hand. Around this time, online commerce was booming. I had disposable income, and had just learned about eBay.

I signed up for an account and instantly, or as instant as 56kbs could be, went looking for things to spend my money on (mostly comic books, and comic-book-related-stuff). Like everyone else new to digital marketplaces, I found out that one couldn’t simply stuff cash in an envelope and send it via snail mail, for obvious reasons. How, then, would I be able to purchase any of these interesting items that I found? The answer was money orders.

Even as a minor, I was able to go to the post office and turn dead presidents into usable currency for these online transactions. Granted, it meant a time delay: waiting for the seller to receive the money order, head to their local post office, and redeem it for cash… but I was now free to spend at will. I had nearly full access to eBay (though even back then, some sellers would only accept Paypal). But it remained: I had figured out how to make my undocumented income viable in one of the largest marketplaces.

Fast-forward to the present day, where there are many more ways in which those who work off the books can participate in online markets. Thanks goes to gift cards, those temporary (and anonymous) debit cards not limited by the antiquated process of mailing a money order.

You can go into any of these stores, pick up a $200 gift card for almost any retailer like Amazon or Apple (a card linked directly to the credit you put on it), and at the register, you move your money (potentially) out of the state, changing out your stack of 20s for cold, flexible, internet-ready plastic. You walk out of the store with your now-digital $200.

Neither the product nor the use of this medium is really that different, with one exception: the availability of these cards makes it very easy to turn those 20s into reportable income. In other words, you’ve just laundered your money.

This is not wild and crazy by any stretch. We’re using digital currency to imitate tradition. The really interesting things that can be done with digital currencies haven’t been explored very deeply outside of science fiction: for example, REAMDE has an MMORPG whose economy favors goldfarmers, while those in For The Win unionize. (Goldfarmers, unsurprisingly, are factories of people generating videogame gold; they perform tasks within the game, with the explicit aim of obtaining digital currency and items, which, you guessed right, can be flipped for currency in real life). Every time an online game with its own economy becomes widely popular, an out-of-game economy develops side-by-side, creating exchange rates for World of Warcraft gold to US dollars, similar to any other currency, (and with all the juicy economics, like messing with the money supply). Just to recap: we can turn a stack-o-dollahz into an anonymous VISA card, into gold in WoW… and vice versa.

WoW indeed.

The main advantage cash has over digital currency is its inherent anonymity. In any transaction, the customer is unknown to the merchant system, with two exceptions: the items purchased, and method of payment. Using a credit card opens the door for merchants to track the customer, based on the unique credit card ID. Using cash, on the contrary, the store doesn’t “know” the customer.

The cost of this opacity, however, is that the digital market becomes inaccessible. Even if you were to use a gift-card for an online purchase, you still need to receive the item you bought: the physical good is going to your house or PO Box, and the digital good to your inbox. How can you maintain your privacy when these are the rules of marketplace-engagement? Given that using gift cards are, or at least appear to be, the easy way for someone to conduct an online transaction without the use of a credit card, I thought I’d try it out and learn how to buy something online in the most anonymous fashion I could think of.

STEP ONE: CASH TO PLASTIC

Difficulty: Easy (as opposed to drop-dead-easy)

I walked in to a drug store, and purchased a $25 gift card for Amazon. Sadly, it took me three tries to find a store that carried the Amazon cards, and arguably I could have grabbed a different one just as easily, but I knew what I wanted (and the Amazon cards don’t cost you an additional four dollars for activation, like the Visa ones do).

As a side note to anyone wishing to attempt this sort of purchase through Amazon, be sure to purchase cards with a total value of more than $25—it allows you to hit that favored bracket of Super Saver Shipping! Because of this limitation, I had to rearrange my purchase to account for the additional shipping costs. Not a deal breaker, but something to be mindful of.

STEP ONE-POINT-FIVE: TOR

Difficulty: Very Easy

For all of the online activity conducted during this experiment, I used the TOR browser. If you’ve never heard of it, be ashamed, get over it, and learn. Tor is a service that bounces your web traffic from location to location, changing your IP address. It isn’t good for file-sharing (most TOR nodes deliberately throttle P2P traffic), but it is good for safety and anonymity. As a side note, many activists in media-censored countries use TOR to bypass internet censorship & spread their message.

STEP TWO: THE PURCHASE

Difficulty: Very Easy Frustration: Moderate

Given the gift card purchase, it’s clear that my destination is Amazon. In order to set up an Amazon account, you need an email address. I decided to create a new one, and further still, to use a disposable one from the service Mailinator. Account in place, credit-card-substitute ready, I found my items, placed my order, and shipped it to an Amazon Locker. It’s best to think of an Amazon Locker as a PO box owned and operated by Amazon, instead of the notoriously unprofitable (and unreliable, from personal experience) United States Postal Service.

After I selected my items and registered my gift card, I was prompted for billing information, and provided fake details. I’m not sure why, but being prompted for billing information surprised me. I thought I’d be able to bypass this, given that I using a locker and was not using a credit card, therefore creating no need for a billing address, but no such luck. For the sake of ease, I’d hoped to keep the false information I had to give out to a minimum—and now I had created four pieces: name, address, phone number, and email. Disposable digital identity secured.

STEP THREE: THE PICKUP

Difficulty: Very Easy

A few days after the purchase, I received an email from Amazon saying that my package had arrived (notably different from a standard Amazon purchase, where you don’t get any other emails once your order has been confirmed), and was given a six-letter code that would unlock the box my package was in. All in all, this was incredibly simple and straight forward. Go to the locker (mine was in a Staples), punch in your code on the touchscreen, take your item, walk away.

The only surprise I received during the pickup was this: there was a camera built into the locker itself. Right above the touchscreen, like the mirrors attached to an ATM, was a camera looking right at you. (Presumably, this camera is not tied into those already running in the Staples location, given that the locker is about five feet tall, and doesn’t appear to have any wires coming out of it—but in all honesty, they could just as easily have run the wires under the floor. And on further thought, that’s probably what they did.)

This sticks in my mind as very, very odd. What purpose does Amazon, a mail order and digital order service, have in recording video of a customer picking up a package? What’s the point? In other words, with a standard Amazon purchase, the only one who sees the customer’s face is the person making the delivery—and they don’t work for Amazon. What makes this type of purchase different? Is it a security issue? (Doubtful. The Amazon lockers that I’ve found have all been in established chain retail venues, and each venue is equipped with security cameras and anti-theft tools of their own). Is this Amazon’s way of trying to identify the customer, when they do not have access to the customer’s home (or business) address? I honestly have no idea where the value is, and because I’m a bit neurotic and paranoid, it makes me nervous. That said, it is still possible to protect your personal information (by proffering false data) and partake of the digital marketplace—at least as far as Amazon is concerned, and that’s a conclusion I am very pleased to be able to draw from all of this.

About the Author

Max Gi is the Managing Editor for What Are These Ideas. He has a fetish for tech and words and pictures; throw all three in a room, he thinks it's a party. Likes coffee, whiskey, rice, veggies. This also makes a party. Believes the diet above is why bugs don't bite him, for his blood must be poison.

Contact:

Email: matty_roth@whataretheseideas.com //
Twitter: @Magatsukun //

No Debit, No Credit, No Problem


By Max Gi //
October 4, 2012 //
Essay



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