Magic Money

In the last decade, we have seen strong changes in the telecommunication sector in our country, be it in terms of networks or devices. With the advent of 3G and smart-phones based on Android, we have seen dramatic changes both in our lifestyles and interactions with others. New age networks and devices have been designed for greater social interaction and promoting an open culture. However , there are significant privacy concerns and worries from both public authorities and private parties about the data.

In recent times, one can remember a few instances when some of the new startups working on social ideas have been found lacking when it comes to protecting confidential data ,be it Path or Facebook .  With most of us using smartphones for multitasking , it is fast becoming a repository of the information connected with us. In recent times, the loss of a phone can sometimes be far more catastrophic than just the loss of contacts, what with photos, emails and personal data.

In the midst of this, we now see Google bringing in Google Wallet, others trying out NFC and Airtel bringing me money. This is the emergence of a new era for service providers( I include Google and other internet/software firms amongst service providers as they provide a service for us clients, independent of the hardware or the platform). We now see service providers shifting from a pure play service provider to becoming a party involved not just in the online services but inching into the domain of banks and other financial service providers.

I am not a great admirer of this concept. Although I do like the ease that it introduces in my life, it introduces a great many complexities as well. When the Airtel ad shows a person transferring money to another person, it fails to inform us of a great many details – Where is this electronic money stored? Is the money deducted from the balance or from the bank account? Is the money only electronic or is there any concept of it being exchanged for real cash? Is Airtel going to tie up with Multiple banks or will I have to create a separate account with the chosen bank of Airtel? How do companies or stores work in this regard  More importantly, now that Airtel has the details of my bank account ( if linked) , what is their security systems like?

Airtel Money’s ad campaign seems to suggest that this concept is targeted more at urban well off customers rather than catering to the bottom of the pyramid. This feels like Airtel has lost out on a great opportunity to develop an alternative payment system , on the likes of the mobile money networks set up in Africa. Not only would this help create an alternative ecosystem designed around this payment methodology meant to provide cheaper better services to the rural and poor, Airtel could have tied up with NGO’s or the government for developing disbursement systems for projects, thus possibly providing greater transparency in development and welfare systems.

Not only is there a lack of proper policy when it comes to these new Mobile payment systems, it seems to be focusing our entire identity into one single device, our phone. This has both pros and cons, with the major cons being the lack of proper systems to ensure security and privacy and the danger of the loss of a phone meaning not just the loss of contacts but also of all your money.Most important of all, this means every transaction of yours is both recorded and traceable. That is both a boon for the government but a significant invasion into our privacy.

In a certain sense, science fiction writers had it right. We are bringing in the systems and ideas imagined in books and movies decades back but we are also slowly moving to a 1984 like reality. The pity is that we have not colonized the planets or improved medicine to the point that we are free of ill health.