Most consumers already say they manage without cash altogether, while shops and cafes increasingly refuse to accept notes and coins because of the costs and risk involved. Until recently, however, it has been hard for critics to find a hearing.
“The Swedish government is a rather nice one, we have been lucky enough to have mostly nice ones for the past 100 years,” says Christian Engström, a former MEP for the Pirate Party and an early opponent of the cashless economy.
“In other countries there is much more awareness that you cannot trust the government all the time. In Sweden it is hard to get people mobilised.”
There are signs this might be changing. In February, the head of Sweden’s central bank warned that Sweden could soon face a situation where all payments were controlled by private sector banks.
The Riksbank governor, Stefan Ingves, called for new legislation to secure public control over the payments system, arguing that being able to make and receive payments is a “collective good” like defence, the courts, or public statistics.
“Most citizens would feel uncomfortable to surrender these social functions to private companies,” he said.
“It should be obvious that Sweden’s preparedness would be weakened if, in a serious crisis or war, we had not decided in advance how households and companies would pay for fuel, supplies and other necessities.”
Until now, Kontantupproret has been dismissed as the voice of the elderly and the technologically backward, Eriksson says.
“When you have a fully digital system you have no weapon to defend yourself if someone turns it off,” he says.
“If Putin invades Gotland [Sweden’s largest island] it will be enough for him to turn off the payments system. No other country would even think about taking these sorts of risks, they would demand some sort of analogue system.”
Skarec points to problems with card payments experienced by two Swedish banks just during the past year, and by Bank ID, the digital authorisation system that allows people to identify themselves for payment purposes using their phones.
Fraudsters have already learned to exploit the system’s idiosyncrasies to trick people out of large sums of money, even their pensions.
The best case scenario is that we are not as secure as we think, Skarec says – the worst is that IT infrastructure is systemically vulnerable.
“We are lucky that the people who know how to hack into them are on the good side, for now,” he says. “But we don’t know how things will progress. It’s not that easy to attack devices today, but maybe it will become easier to do so in the future.”
The banks recognise that digital payments can be vulnerable, just like cash.
“Of course there are people trying to abuse them, but they are no more vulnerable than any other method of payment,” says Per Ekwall, a spokesperson for Swish, the immensely popular mobile payments system owned by Sweden’s banks.
But an opinion poll this month revealed unease among Swedes, with almost seven out of 10 saying they wanted to keep the option to use cash, while just 25% wanted a completely cashless society. MPs from left and right expressed concerns at a recent parliamentary hearing. Parliament is conducting a cross-party review of central bank legislation that will also investigate the issues surrounding cash.
“If you have control of the servers belonging to Visa or MasterCard, you have control of Sweden,” Engström says.
“In the meantime, we will have to keep giving our money to the banks, and hope they don’t go bankrupt – or bananas.”