The New Digital Divide

Buried beneath all the news about Apple this week, another story about digital privacy broke in Maryland — less glamorous, but arguably just as impactful to many people. On March 1st, the Washington Post reported that the Maryland Senate again delayed action on a bill that would have clamped down on the recording of conversations on public buses and trains. Since 2012, the Maryland Transit Administration has recorded the conversations of thousands of riders, with the bus company claiming it would be used as evidence in case of attacks on drivers or crimes committed on the bus. But no one is quite clear on what has been done with the recordings thus far, or what will be done with them in the future.

The story might not have gained much attention simply because it is so local, but there’s another possible reason it hasn’t captured headlines — many of the people who ride public buses in Baltimore are poor, and the poor simply have fewer digital privacy rights across the board. From the devices they use to the information they are required to give up to receive benefits to their inability to stand up for their privacy due to fear of police violence, the poor live in a different digital world than the middle class.

Start with the devices they use. As Apple has made perfectly clear over the course of the last few weeks, its phones are rock solid when it comes to security — but their phones are also top-of-the-line products that can cost several hundred dollars. “When it comes to phones and security, you get what you pay for,” says Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The newer Android models are secure, but they cost just as much; when you are dealing with the cheaper phones, it is much easier to do drive-by hacking.” The same goes for desktops; Apple computers come without adware, whereas cheaper models like Acer come loaded with tracking software that can be next to impossible to disable.

When they use these devices to connect to the Internet, the connections they use are less secure as well. Cardozo points out that AT&T’s fiber optic internet service charges an extra $20 per month if you don’t want them to track your browsing. If you rely on wi-fi networks like those at fast food restaurants or chain stores, those networks are far less secure than private networks, according to Seeta Peña Gangadharan, a Program Fellow at New America’s Open Technology Institute.

In addition to all the information many poor people are unknowingly giving up, they are also forced to share much more personal information in order to receive public benefits. Almost every U.S. resident gets some sort of government benefit, usually in the form of public resources (roads, parks) or tax credits for mortgages, student loan interest, or dependent children – but the poor face many more invasive questions and are required to reveal much more information in order to collect their benefits. In addition to having to reveal the data, it is then stored in sometimes insecure databases, as evidenced by a 2013 leak in Indiana that potentially exposed the private data of almost 200,000 clients.

This isn’t to say that the old system, where client files were printed on paper and getting access to benefits required waiting in long lines, was better, says Michele Gilman, a Professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “We don’t want to encourage a digital divide between the middle class, who can do many things online, and the poor not having access to that,” she says. “But we also need to make sure the digital programs are well managed and secure.”

Gilman adds that the poor are at a disadvantage when it comes to digital problems that cut across classes. “Identity theft happens to everyone, but the poor often suffer greater harms,” she says. “They might not have the resources to stand up for themselves with authority figures to report the theft, or might not have the time to spend hours on the phone with a bank figuring everything out because they are working two low-wage jobs.”

Standing up for digital privacy rights is harder for the poor because, in many cases, they simply don’t know what rights they have when it comes to revealing electronic information. And even if they do know their rights, fear of police violence or harassment can lead to them revealing information anyway. “It’s highly unreasonable to expect poor people to take advantage of their privacy rights given the enormous burden this places on them,” says Gangadharan. “Working through the legal system…that’s a high bar considering all that someone who’s barely surviving is required to do to meet basic needs.”

The great promise of the Internet and the new digital world was that it would create a level playing field and allow everyone to access the same information. Unfortunately, it has also created a world where accessing that information has very different costs depending on how much money you make or the color of your skin. Tim Cook might be more fun to rally around than a bus rider in Baltimore, but their voices are both important in this debate. 

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