A small fleet of high-top cargo vans park in neat rows behind the Bank of America, just off the alley I cut through on my way home from work. The vans have out-of-state plates but are otherwise pristine, bearing no markings or logos. I imagine that I know what the people who parked those vans are doing inside the bank: a night-shift installation of some proprietary technology. They’re putting in or taking out ATMs, cash-sorting machines, vault-security systems, surveillance cameras, and panic buttons.
I’ve seen too many movies to resist imagining what else might be going on. A team of foreign intelligence agents in white jumpsuits could have kidnapped the original crew. The vans might be for moving hostages (or bodies) to a nearby safe house. An alternate scenario involves a team of mercenaries in the employ of a transnational criminal network. I know that I’m getting carried away, but I always pick up the pace a little when I cut through the parking lot.
Banking circa 2017 is technological. We pay bills with the click of a button. Paychecks magically appear in our accounts. Deposit slips are a memory. You increase your balance by letting a machine gobble up a stack of checks or, if you’re feeling wild, a stack of cash. The job of most of the remaining humans at the bank is to help when something goes wrong with the machines.
I find it depressing. Banking doesn’t have to be fun, exactly, but does it really have to feel like buying Snickers from a vending machine?
All banks have security teams working nights and weekends to ensure that customer accounts are never violated despite what media reports characterize as a nonstop barrage of cyberattacks. Probably, Bank of America has an entire corporate division working to keep customers’ money safe. But the more people you have working on a problem, the greater the likelihood that one of them is a bad egg. BofA surely has a human-resources team whose job it is to vet the integrity of the security team. On top of all that, they must have fail-safes built into the system—layer upon layer of management oversight and procedural redundancy constructed by consultants hired with the money saved by not hiring bank tellers or printing reams of deposit slips. How exhausting it must all be.
Trust has always been at the heart of banking. Banks traditionally were built to look like fortresses, with giant columns and blocks of marble, so that your average passbook saver would come away with the feeling that the place wasn’t going anywhere and that his money was safe. He was savvy enough to know that the bank didn’t keep the contents of his shoebox in a vault on the premises, but he felt good about the arrangement. He knew the bank’s return address. He was on a first-name basis with some of its employees.
Today, the average bank is designed to look no more permanent than a cell-phone store at an outlet mall. Instead of inviting our trust with soaring ceilings, marble columns, and six-inch bullet-proof glass, banks ask us to put our trust in the website security certificate posted at the bottom of the homepage. And we do, blindly.
Why? How can anyone be trusted in the age of Guccifer 2.0, Anonymous, and a hundred thousand teenage hackers (not to mention Vladimir Putin)? That’s what I wonder when I see a fleet of unmarked white high-top cargo vans in the parking lot of the local branch. A single guy on the overnight crew could easily walk out of there some cold Tuesday morning with a blueprint, a schematic, or an access code that he could sell for enough money to retire on to the highest-bidding underworld kingpin or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Laws governing cybercrime protect the average customer from liability, but no one can be protected from the emotional and psychological cost of being targeted by vaporous Internet con men.
The same thing is happening to banking that is happening in seemingly every other sphere: technological fixes to life’s many non-problems seem so simple and appealing that we voluntarily relinquish privacy, security, intimacy, anonymity—intangible goods that we once highly prized. And what do we get in return? A promise from Silicon Valley’s smooth operators that we will one day live in a world where cars drive themselves, doors open on their own, and a voice-activated computer anticipates our every need.
Most of us neither want nor need to live in this world. It’s coming anyway. You can bet your electronic balance on it.
Photo by martin-dm/iStock