The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) has released its list of priorities for 2024, and research about the privacy of payments in retail Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) is at the forefront of its plans for the new year.
The Global Central Bank revealed its plans in a January 23, 2024, press statement announcing the first batch of six new projects it plans to complete in 2024 through its Innovation Hub work program. The research project (Project Aurum) will take place in the Hong Kong Center, studying the privacy of retail CBDCs. The announcement is in line with a July 2023 survey that projected the availability of at least 15 retail CBDCs by 2030.
After a successful 2023 that saw the BIS Innovation Hub complete 12 projects (with eight ongoing), the group would be looking to commence and conclude a variety of additional projects in 2024 to shape the future of global finance, with Project Aurum being one of them.
What is Project Aurum?
The Bank for International Settlements Innovation Hub compartmentalizes its yearly initiatives into projects, each with its unique name for identification. Last year, the hub completed Projects Atlas, Aurora, Icebreaker, Polaris, and Tourbillon, among others. For this year, the body has planned six projects for 2023, one of which is Project Aurum.
According to details from the page introducing the new projects, Project Aurum will take place in the Hong Kong Center. Also, the project will include the study of the privacy of retail payments with Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs).
According to BIS Innovation Hub, the study aims to help Central Banks understand CBDCs better with expertise from worldwide privacy regulators and existing digital finance studies in academia. From the statement, the BIS Innovation Hub could explore how Central Banks can build privacy into CBDCs (as part of the project), a relevant concern as CBDCs are criticized as an inherent privacy risk.
About the Five Other Projects
As hinted earlier, other projects are in the works. The organization also unveiled five projects, with more on the way. Apart from Project Aurum, the rest include Project Leap, Project Symbiosis, Project NGFS Data Directory 2.0, Project Promissa, and Project Hertha.
Project Leap is the second phase of a preceding project aiming to quantum-proof payment systems; Project Symbiosis, also taking place at the Hong Kong Centre, will seek to test and improve AI tech for supply chain disclosure and adaptation in digital finance.
Others include Project Promissa, a research effort that tests the possibility of tokenizing promissory notes; Project Hertha, which aims to identify cybercrime risks using network analytics; and Project NGFS Data Directory 2.0, which seeks to rebuild the NGFS data directory from the ground up.
While the projects are (mostly) ambitious and revolutionary, its attempt to bake privacy into Central Bank Digital Currencies is already facing roadblocks from observers and crypto enthusiasts. With legislators and politicians worldwide taking bold stances against CBDCs, one can question the feasibility of Project Aurum in the long term.
Why Observers Worry About CBDCs
Leading Republican Presidential Candidate, Former President Donald Trump, recently vowed never to allow CBDCs in the United States if re-elected President, echoing the ideals of many cryptocurrency enthusiasts and Republican Party members in the wake of calls for establishing a digital dollar.
Mr. Trump would join a growing list of influential politicians in the United States taking a stance against Central Bank Digital Currencies, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and US Senator Ted Cruz also joining the bandwagon. Also, observers often cite the inherent absence of privacy with CBDC systems as its major flaw, alleging that CBDCs take away some of the fundamental freedoms of Americans while offering virtually no benefit.
The criticism is valid. CBDCs do not operate on permissionless blockchains like most cryptocurrencies, and they are issued and controlled by the Central Bank, giving the issuer excessive control over users’ monies. If Project Aurum becomes successful, the BIS may end up with a CBDC framework that ensures users’ privacy while offering the numerous benefits expected of a government-backed digital currency.
However, it is unclear if the project will impact the systemic opposition to Central Bank Digital Currencies. With cryptocurrencies and dollar-pegged stablecoin tokens still very much around, another question CBDC critics may ask after the fact is: why?