The Threat of Contaminated Money: Proposed Solutions

by Nova Spivack, Minding the Planet,

This news article reports that the FBI is investigating a situation in which mobsters deliberately contaminated their drug money with a virus in order to deter in-house theft by members of their organization. Several years ago, during the days of collective paranoia following 9-11, I started thinking about how to combat potential terrorist threats — and one of the threats I came up with was precisely this threat of contaminated money. Because money travels in a “viral” manner along social and economic networks it represents a perfect vector for spreading a contaminant. While the effects of such an attack would be minimal in terms of actual fatalities, they would potentially be enormous in terms of panic and disruption to our way of life.

I knew it was only a matter of time before this threat materialized somewhere in the world: Now it seems that an actual case has emerged. While the money in question did not represent a large sum, and although viruses (at least) have a relatively short shelf-life, it is an example of a scary new kind of threat that governments need to prepare to defend against. Below are some thoughts about a potential worst-case scenario and various countermeasures that could be implemented to protect against it.

Here is a hypothetical worst-case scenario: imagine what would happen if terrorists contaminated $30 million of small-denomination US dollar banknotes with weaponized anthrax (which can survive for a very long time outside of a lab) and then put those notes back into circulation in several major cities. A month later they then announce what they have done. By that point the contaminated notes have circulated through countless banks, ATM machines, cash registers, wallets, people’s clothing and homes — in short, a large scope of potential contamination exists. The public and the news media panic –suddenly nobody knows whether their $10, $20 and $50 bills are safe to touch, let alone use. People are advised not to use, touch or accept such notes. Leading health authorities go so far as to advise people to throw away or burn their money as well as anything that may have come in contact with it — their wallets, their credit cards, their clothing, etc. Furthermore even the act of coming into contact with potentially contaminated notes in order to dispose of them is risky –and so people don’t know what to do. People are advised to use credit cards for all transactions — but this cuts out anyone who doesn’t have a credit card as well as any business that doesn’t accept credit cards. Furthermore, since plastic credit cards may have come in contact with the contaminated notes in people’s wallets, they too are suspect and may be risky to use. Only telephone and Internet transactions are “hands off” enough to be completely safe. But not every consumer, nore very business, is capable of online payments for every single transaction they do. As a result the consumer economy grinds to a screeching halt.

Possible Countermeasures:

What is the solution? How can we prepare for, defend against, and mitigate such a situation?

My first recommendation is that banknotes should be regularly tested, according to a random sampling schedule, in several major cities, for the presence of potential contaminants. This is not so easy as it turns out that all banknotes carry a large amount of bacteria and other contaminants naturally. Therefore the testing must specifically look for unusual contaminants or unusually high levels of common contaminants.

Secondly, all banks, cash registers and ATM machines should at the very least have built-in UV emitters that destroy viruses and bacteria on any banknotes that pass through them. While this will not protect against radiological or chemical contamination it would protect against biological agents. Since most notes eventually pass through cash registers and ATM machines this measure would help to prevent the spread of any biological contaminant.

Thirdly, there should be a method for replacing contaminated banknotes on a large scale if necessary. Every banknote has an unique serial number. A system should be devised whereby people can bring their banknotes to a location that will take them and provide uncontaminated replacements. To accomplish this effectively, banks should be used as the distribution points for this process. Each bank should be provided with a system for in-taking potentially contaminated notes, logging their serial numbers, photographing them, and destroying them — and then issuing a replacement note to the customer.

Fourthly, as a short-term emergency solution there should be a system in place that can switch the entire nation or any city to digital cash immediately. To do this, every citizen and business should be provided with a free digital wallet that can be accessed via Internet or telephone. The owners of these wallets should be enabled to put money into them, and to transfer funds between them, and with draw money from them. Paypal would be a suitable infrastructure for this. This solution would not work for everyone — not everyone has a bank account or credit card or even a permanent address — but it would work for a large percentage of the population and for a short term would keep the economy running.