The vast collection of Americans’ financial data by a dwindling number of large financial firms is one of the ways the United States could end up like China, warned Rohit Chopra, the head of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB).

In a panel discussion hosted by the Brookings Institute on Friday, Chopra made his case for a fresh batch of regulations that would require payment companies to provide more information on their use of personal data and private currencies, including digital currencies. Such disclosures are vital, he said, because private companies have accumulated unprecedented power over Americans’ financial decisions.

"I fear that the U.S. is lurching toward a consolidated market structure like the one that has emerged in China that blurs the lines between payments and commerce, and creates the incentives for excessive surveillance and even financial censorship," Chopra said in his prepared remarks.

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The panel was part of a Friday event hosted in Washington, D.C., titled "Making America’s Payment System Work for a Digital Century." In addition to Chopra, the gathering featured Federal Reserve Board member Christopher J. Waller. Much of the conversation returned to central bank digital currencies (CBDCs), which many critics have described as a tool of a surveillance state.

With companies like Google and Apple collecting large amounts of financial data through their payment system, Chopra cautioned that new rules were necessary to avoid blurring any lines separating their activities from those in the actual financial sector.

In China, some large technology companies like Alibaba and WeChat operate separate payment services that Chopra said captures “an extraordinary amount of personal data” on Chinese users. According to the Enterprise Apps Today platform, Alipay has around 1.3 billion users and WeChat's pay has 250 million as of 2022. 

To correct this, Chopra said the CFPB is considering a new rule to let it directly supervise how non-bank financial platforms provide services to counterparts in the financial sector to limit surveillance opportunities. 

“The rule will seek to accelerate America's shift to open, competitive, and decentralized banking, while also seeking to safeguard against abuse of our personal data,” said Chopra.

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The CFPB chief also said that his agency was prepared to take new actions related to digital currencies. Pointing to a November 2021 report on stablecoins by the U.S. Treasury, Chopra said that the tokens did present risks of interest to his agency, particularly around surveillance and destabilizing runs on the token.

To mitigate these, Chopra said the CFPB is considering requiring more information from tech firms about their business models, including their policies around issuing new digital currencies, and new examinations by his agency.

The CFPB implements and enforces federal consumer financial law and ensures that markets for consumer financial products are fair, transparent, and competitive. Created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act—passed in response to the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession—the independent bureau consolidates oversight previously handled by several different agencies.

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