Privacy SOS

Race and class matters: All’s not equal when it comes to the government’s big data habit

Above: Affected children protest the fingerscanning requirement in Jackson, MS

(Note: This is somewhat unrelated, but for Apple iPhone users, very important. Click here to learn how to opt-out of automated tracking in iOS 6.)

We've known for some time that the federal government has been funding pilot biometrics programs nationwide at the state and local level. Electronic fingerprint readers for police departments here, face recognition systems there, mobile biometrics units in other places. But there's something unique about one particular state biometrics program unfolding in Mississippi: unlike the many others, which have largely flown under the radar of the communities affected by them, this one is facing serious local resistance.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services is using $1.7 million in federal stimulus funds to purchase over 1,000 biometric fingerprint readers for child care centers that serve low income children. Their parents receive government vouchers to help offset the cost of their child care, and the government claims that it can cheaply detect fraud and abuse by requiring parents to scan their fingers on the biometric machines when they pick up and drop off their kids. Parents are not pleased about this and have been staging demonstrations to stop the practice, which they say (and I agree) is privacy violative. 

The government says the fingerprint scans will reduce the cost of child care, enabling the state to provide more assistance to low income families, but the system isn't saving the government any money. In fact, it may cost more. According to the Hattiesburg American newspaper:

A unit of Xerox Corp will receive up to $12 million over five years for the contract, though based on the number of children served, the amount it saves is likely to be less than $10 million.

So the program won't save any money and may cost the state an extra two million dollars, but it will violate the privacy of low income families. Worse, child care "[p]roviders also said they feel a special check-in for subsidy recipients will segregate poor children," wrote the paper. 

I've written before about how low income and other marginalized groups (including people of color and LGBT people) are likely to end up profiled and monitored by the government more extensively than, say, upper class white heterosexuals. How? Interaction with government social safety net services produces volumes of sometimes extremely personal information about aid recipients, and people who receive these services naturally fall on the lower end of the income spectrum. Queer youth have higher rates of homelessness and substance abuse, problems that lead them to engage with government service offices that are heavy on the data collection and retention.

Additionally, any kind of interaction with the criminal justice system from arrest onward contributes towards your government files. We all know about the unequal arrest rates in the United States, with class and race disproportionately affecting not just arrest but also prosecution and conviction rates pretty much across the board. (Sometimes you don't even need to be arrested — being a person of color in the wrong place at the wrong time can land you in a "gang" database in many cities in the US.) 

When we talk about equal justice as it relates to class and race in the United States, we also need to consider the inequalities in government data collection. All levels of government are increasingly gathering frighteningly comprehensive data profiles about all of us, but even in the databases, all is not equal.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.