Privacy SOS

If you are poor, you likely have very little privacy — and hardly anyone talks about it

I've written before about how poor people have less privacy than the rich. And it's not just for the obvious reasons you might imagine: because the rich travel in private cars, instead of taking the bus; or because the rich live in large private homes, instead of cramped apartment buildings with thin walls — or even worse, on the street. The disparity is also about more than the disproportionate impact of high-intensity policing in low-income areas, though that is hugely relevant and always has been. 

In the 21st century, poor people have even less privacy than they used to, and the privacy gulf between rich and poor is growing (much like the wealth gap itself). The culprit? Big data.

In a piece for Slate, New America Foundation's Seeta Peña Gangadharan and Aleta Sprague explain how "[p]oor people in the welfare system don’t have privacy," and furthermore, "don’t [even] factor into broader debates on protecting individuals’ liberty and right to be left alone."

This isn’t just a hypothetical. Rogue actors have targeted databases for public assistance programs, leaving poor people exposed and exploited.

One of the more egregious examples comes out of Utah, where in 2010 a Department of Workforce Services employee accessed a client database and released to the media, law enforcement, and governor’s office the names of benefits recipients who were allegedly unauthorized to be in the United States. In response, the state instituted a “zero tolerance” policy for unauthorized database access—but after 24 workers were fired, the penalty was reduced to a four-day suspension. In a separate incident two years later, hackers stole 250,000 Social Security numbers from the Utah state government’s server, along with “less-sensitive information” from about 500,000 more.

Lower-income individuals increasingly have to use online options for public benefits enrollment, and their (justified) fears about personal cybersecurity and identity theft can further ignite anxieties and concerns that arise as a result of  intrusive data collection. Poor people face immense amounts of stigma when applying for public assistance and are required to share a tremendous amount of personal and financial information. Combine that with a digitally insecure welfare system, and you get people in poverty who are even more marginalized—and even more distrustful of government and institutions. 
 
One straightforward solution to this problem would be to collect less data.
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© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.