In Poverty, No Privacy?

Blog Post
Dec. 17, 2013

Last Thursday, New America’s Open Technology Institute, Asset Building Program, and Breadwinners and Caregivers Program hosted an event to explore the dynamics of privacy, surveillance and technology in the context of people's lived experiences with poverty and the public assistance system. Check out the full video recording of the event here, or scroll down to see a Storify summarizing the online conversation from the event.

Following the event, we recorded a podcast with several of our panelists to discuss these issues in a more dynamic format. Listen to that conversation by clicking on the audio file below.

Our Aleta Sprague began by framing the event in its historical context. This conversation about the intersection of poverty, privacy and data security is playing out within a society that has come to accept different expectations of privacy for families in different financial circumstances, she noted. Seeta Peña Gangadharan, a senior research fellow at OTI, moderated the panel, drawing on her research on the experiences and concerns of new and often underserved Internet users.

Brigid Schulte, a Fellow with New America and journalist with the Washington Post, talked about the challenges and privacy deprivations that families in the public assistance system endure day-in and day-out as they struggle to meet their basic needs. Drawing on examples from the shelter system, TANF, and subsidized childcare, she described a range of indignities families and individuals must face as a condition of receiving benefits, including providing “every last shred of data” about personal, family and financial circumstances.

Next, Michele Gilman, the director of the Civil Advocacy Clinic at the University of Baltimore Law School, described the evolution of surveillance of poor families in the U.S., beginning with the “overseers of the poor” who tracked their identities and whereabouts in the colonial era. She also explained how our legal system has sanctioned a lower standard of privacy for public assistance recipients--thus enabling a variety of stigmatizing data collection practices, from drug testing to finger imaging and home visits.

Virginia Eubanks of the University of Albany then discussed the role of caseworkers and automated eligibility processes in benefits administration, using the case of Indiana v. IBM to illustrate the pitfalls of systems modernization efforts that leave no room for caseworker discretion and evaluation of individual circumstances.

Lastly, Meaghan O’Connor, Assistant Director of Programs and Partnerships at the D.C. Public Library, described some of the challenges that new users of the internet can face when applying for jobs or services online, including the tremendous amount of personal information they must often provide through potentially insecure online portals.

Technological upgrades have significant potential to increase access to essential services and streamline application processing. However, it would be a mistake to neglect the risks and harms posed by mass data collection and sharing, or to dismiss low-income families’ privacy rights as inconsequential compared to their other needs. Thursday’s event provided a chance to explore an issue that has thus far received inadequate attention in either the anti-poverty or tech spaces, and we hope to have more opportunities to examine this important intersection in the future.