Privacy SOS

Targets of the data system: youth of color, low income, queer and trans people

Yesterday posted a story with an attention grabbing headline:

The story spells out how transgender people are subjected to extra scrutiny by government bureaucrats at TSA, who find them suspicious either because their documents don't match up precisely to older records, or because the "naked scanners" in use at airports nationwide show screeners something they did not expect.

Indeed, Bohling reports that TSA agents are told to be extra suspicious of anyone they suspect is dressed in 'wrongly' gendered clothing — "Male bombers may dress as females in order to discourage scrutiny," says a 2003 DHS terrorism warning document. Moreover, arduous identification hurdles and suspicion due to name changes put trans and gender non-conforming people squarely in the sights of the government-gone-wild data matrix.

But transgender and gender non-conforming people are not only affected by the security paradigm when they fly. And transgender people are not alone in being unfairly singled out by the matrix.

Youth of color, the criminalized classes, queer and trans people, immigrants, low income people and Muslims are also unfairly targeted. We spend a fair amount of time on this website exploring how the state disproportionately targets Muslims and immigrants, but what about these other groups?

When we pull back the curtain on various government tracking and monitoring programs, it becomes clear that the state is collecting vast amounts of extremely personal information about the most marginalized people in our society. And those of us who don't live in shelters, receive food stamps, get passed around the state welfare system or flipped through the revolving doors at juvenile detention centers or jails don't know the half of it.

LGBT youth and youth of color: at risk for data profiling

LGBT youth make up twenty percent of homeless youth, though they only comprise ten percent of the population. One report found that up to forty percent of homeless youth nationwide are LGBT. Queer and trans young people are many times more likely to be victims of violent aggression or assault than their straight peers. Another study found that 65% of LGBT homeless youth reported having been in the welfare or foster care system at some point. Up to half of gay and bisexual young men forced from their homes by unsupportive parents engaged in prostitution to survive. Queer and trans youth are much more likely than their straight peers to have substance abuse problems, and at earlier ages.

The statistics for LGBT youth of color are even more shocking. One study showed that 60% of young trans people of color had traded sex for money and that this group of people is at "extreme risk of acquiring HIV." An estimated 65% of all homeless people are people of color. This infographic from the community organization FIERCE! and the Prison Morotorium Project shows how LGBT youth of color are disproportionately thrust into the prison industrial complex system. 

All of these statistics are what lead people in the service world to call young queer people and queer youth of color "at risk" communities. States like New York and Massachusetts offer a number of public and private programs and services to these communities — shelters, drug abuse programs, job training, parenting workshops, educational opportunities and food assistance among them. But along with those services comes a truly astounding level of data collection about the most marginalized people in our society, and hardly anyone is paying attention to the serious privacy issues that arise from these databases. The NYC case offers an extreme example of this invasive — and largely shadowy — data collection and tracking.


You wouldn't know it by doing even an extensive Google search, but the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) in 2010 decided to consolidate all of its youth and community data into one database, the 'Capricorn' system. A bit of information on the new system is available at Columbia's website, where a listing of available student internships includes a project with DYCD involving Capricorn. 

In FY 2011 DYCD implemented Capricorn, the most recent advancement in our information technology systems. Capricorn is an on-line system that collects demographic information and progress notes on all participants in Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) funded programs. Capricorn enables users to generate reports related to participant enrollments and outcome tracking. Community-based 
organizations access Capricorn via the Internet. DYCD IT department is also currently developing a “bridge” that will connect the various information technology systems within the agency to facilitate analysis and reporting of data across all internal systems. 
US Health and Human Services Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) funded programs include a number of service organizations that provide life or death resources to the most marginalized people in New York City, including queer youth of color, homeless people, low income people, and those with disabilities. According to the information above, any organization that takes money from the CSBG is required to submit extremely detailed information on the people who access their services. This data is tracked across agencies and city departments. 
While low income people and queer people of color, particularly youths, are more likely to get caught up in the prison industrial complex, the Capricorn system shows us that direct engagement with the police isn't the only way these communities get tracked by the government. In New York City at least, the government has built in extremely detailed data tracking requirements to a number of services that are literally life sustaining for these communities.
A call to the DYCD office seeking Capricorn's privacy policy and other information about the data tracking has yet to be returned. Until we see that privacy policy or other information, we won't know exactly what personal data is required in order to get services; how easily the data is accessible to which city, corporate or service organization officials; whether there are auditing mechanisms in place to protect the privacy of the people whose data resides inside the system; how easily the information can be shared with school officials or the police; or if there are any privacy protections in place to ensure that the people who are supposedly being helped by these services don't end up hurt as a result of data breaches, improper access, or straight up abuse.
Is this kind of tracking through social service providers occuring in Massachusetts, too? In other states? If you have information about government data tracking via service providers, please contact us.
(Note: When I called DYCD seeking the privacy policy for Capricorn — if there is one — I spoke briefly with the head of the IT office, Jose Ivy, who told me to speak with media relations. I'm awaiting a call back from the media relations department and will update this story with more information if I receive it. But if anyone has any other information on the Capricorn system, particularly if it is specific information describing what kind of detailed data points it requires from service participants, please contact me here.)

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.