Poverty in the U.S.? Yes — and it’s a digital rights issue

In the United States, just like anywhere else, it’s the people in marginalized and oppressed groups who suffer the most acute violations of digital rights, while the wealthy and privileged are protected against those same risks. Access Now is calling on Philip Alston, U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, to investigate this digital divide during his official country visit to the U.S. in December.

There are 45 million people, including one in five children, living in poverty in the U.S., according to the government’s own figures. The true number may be even larger, since the U.S. defines poverty solely by using an individual’s or family’s yearly income, ignoring other factors in play.

To inform the Special Rapporteur’s investigation, we provide evidence to show that violating the digital rights of marginalized people can contribute to impoverishment and can exacerbate poverty’s impact. Our submission is listed here alongside others on the U.N. website.

The United Nations defines absolute poverty as “severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education, and information.” Access Now believes that exclusion from social services, public discourse, and communications networks, which are facilitated by internet access, has a harmful impact akin to economic deprivation. We cannot achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, in the U.S. or elsewhere, without universal access to a free, open, and secure internet. At the same time, we need better understanding of the role technology plays in maintaining systems of exclusion, oppression, and marginalization. The Special Rapporteur can help accomplish both tasks by examining barriers to internet access, the privacy of welfare recipients, and the targeted surveillance of immigrant, poor, and minority communities.

Tech for good

As far back as 1995, world leaders recognized that technology could help alleviate poverty. Heads of State at the World Summit for Social Development recognized that getting “new information technologies” to people living in poverty could spur development, and pledged “to facilitate access.”

Unfortunately, more than 20 years later, the digital divide in the U.S. and many other countries is allowing the wealthy and politically powerful to enjoy faster and more robust access to the internet than those who are less privileged. Families in poor areas of the U.S. are “almost five times more likely not to have access to high-speed broadband than the most affluent American households.” Inequality persists within cities, where low-income communities often lack access to the broadband internet that is available only blocks away. Economically, rural residents in the southern states are worse off than urbanites in those regions. States such as Arkansas, Mississippi, and West Virginia all fare badly in wealth and internet connection indexes — and would be ideal locations for the Special Rapporteur to visit.

Ironically, those in poor communities are often charged more for their slower internet. ISPs are able to impose exorbitant rates for access to their network, making the internet too expensive for many people, who then depend on local libraries, schools, and stores for access to wifi.

Giving up privacy for welfare benefits

State-based economic support and government-funded benefits are often exclusively offered to those near or below national poverty thresholds, and these programs entail massive data collection. That means people accessing public benefits and child welfare services, many of whom are poor, have to provide in-depth personal data that can then be used for big data analysis, with uncertain outcomes. (Resources on this issue include John Gilliom’s book Overseers of the Poor: Surveillance, Resistance, and the Limits of Privacy, 2001.)

Impoverished individuals face financial obstacles to obtaining a reliable internet connection to begin with, as ISPs continue to prioritize extensions and improvements to existing services that benefit wealthy populations. Once online, impoverished communities face additional challenges in ensuring their privacy and security.  One study found that, “[m]arginal Internet users’ privacy and surveillance concerns are central to their early encounters with and expectations of the Internet and computers, though formally absent from digital literacy instruction.” Some abandon or avoid the internet entirely due to these concerns. Yet many “give up intimate details about themselves in exchange for welfare support.”

Privacy is a fundamental human right, and those who need help from the government to meet the basic needs of food, shelter, health, and education, should never be forced to choose between defense of that right and their own well being.

Surveillance tools targeting poor and minority neighborhoods

People living in poor communities often become victims to invasive surveillance by local law enforcement authorities. An example is police use of cell-site simulators, or “stingrays” in low-income neighborhoods. A stingray is a communications interception technology that is disguised as a cellular tower, and it allows authorities to monitor the activity of an individual’s mobile phone. Last year, the investigative news site City Lab uncovered discriminatory use of stingrays, finding that, “78 percent of trackable Stingray uses from 2007-14 were found to be in Census blocks where the median household income was lower than the city average.”

Complaints by the American Civil Liberties Union, echoed by United States senators, provide more detail on use of this technology by police departments in Baltimore and other American cities where there are many people living under the poverty line. In a joint comment to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, 12 U.S. senators said that they are “…particularly concerned about allegations that cell site simulators … disrupt cellular service and may interfere with calls for emergency assistance, and that the manner in which cell site simulators are used may disproportionately impact communities of color.” Meanwhile, the Trump Administration’s FCC looks unlikely to reign in the private telecom providers of phones to U.S. prisons, who charge exorbitant amounts.

Private companies in the U.S. develop, market, and supply surveillance technology, including stingrays and those used to monitor social media activity. Silicon Valley —  shorthand for the U.S. digital technology sector — promotes a dominant business model based on mass scale data collection, retention, and processing. Yet business founders and leaders often proceed without considering the impact on vulnerable and marginalized communities. This may be a reflection of a long-recognized problem: these businesses often lack representation on staff from the communities the technology would harm (see the Declaration and Programme of Action of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance [at para. 144(b)], held in Durban, South Africa in 2001).

Unfortunately, as we continue to see a lack of staff diversity and a “winner takes all” economic model prevail in Silicon Valley, we are also continuing to see the social, cultural, and financial benefits of the internet economy go to already-privileged populations. To address that problem, companies and public authorities should heavily reinvest profits from internet businesses to build a tech sector that better serves the public good. Executives should also allow collective bargaining and worker unions to thrive — as we’ve said, tech workers of the world unite!

Immigrants under surveillance

Immigrants to the United States, who often come to the U.S. to better their economic circumstances, are now being placed under heightened scrutiny and are often the first subjected to new methods of surveillance. Legal and undocumented immigrants are exposed to biometric data requests that are otherwise reserved for those suspected of terrorism or crime. Research by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has led reporters to conclude that, “Immigrant communities are more likely to be the site of biometric data collection than native-born communities because they have less political power to resist it.”

This increased scrutiny inhibits the free expression and threatens the privacy of immigrants. Access Now has responded to requests for comments by Departments of State in 2017 regarding a proposal to collect the social media identifiers of foreign citizens entering the U.S. In 2016, when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a request for comment on rule changes to enable collecting identifiers, Access Now issued a survey asking for responses from the public. Of the more than 2,300 individuals that responded, the overwhelming majority saw the proposal as negative. As one respondent explained, “I believe that requesting this information would have a chilling effect on free and open discussion on social media — discussion that is essential to democracy.”

No baseline privacy rules

Despite the risks of mass surveillance and targeted privacy invasions, as well as those associated with collecting sensitive data about marginalized and vulnerable populations, the United States lacks baseline privacy protections for personal data. Instead, people must depend on a patchwork of state and federal laws that provide a mix of preventive and remedial measures. These protections differ based on the type of data at issue, with evident gaps, including for data processing by ISPs. The Broadband Privacy Rules passed during the Obama Administration promised necessary reforms including limits on “pay for privacy” programs, but the U.S. Congress under the Trump administration killed the rules before they took effect.

We urge the Special Rapporteur to examine each of these issues in depth. The U.S. digital divide means that many people are struggling to access the open internet affordably, including those in poor, immigrant, and minority communities. However, this “divide” is also the more nuanced divide, where the impoverished encounter more risk in using the internet and digital technology — and becoming subject to it — than the wealthy and privileged. Those risks put them in greater jeopardy, deepening the negative impact of poverty in the U.S.