Research Shows Poor Americans More Severely Harmed By Surveillance

Posted on May 1, 2019

According to a piece in The New York Times, a recent study by the Pew Research Center revealed that Americans in lower income groups confront greater privacy and security concerns, but enjoy less access to means of addressing them. The author, Mary Madden, led the team’s analysis of the dynamic between privacy and socioeconomic status and found that poor Americans are more likely to be the subjects of surveillance, and are simultaneously more likely to suffer financial repercussions for taking steps to insulate themselves from that same surveillance.

One example Madden gave was that an American of a lower income group who reduces their online presence, whether to mitigate the impact of monitoring by police or simply to combat identity fraud, is more likely to be passed over when reviewing social media as part of a job search (a hiring practice that is becoming increasingly common). This, in turn, perpetuates a vicious cycle, as restricted access to employment forestalls one’s prospect for upward social mobility.

Madden goes on to point out that race is also a significant determining factor in determining the degree of state surveillance Americans of all classes, but particularly of lower socioeconomic stations, face in actual practice. This has been true historically, as in the case of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program and its monitoring of civil rights activists, and remains the case through the present day, as police departments routinely track Black Lives Matter organizers’ activity on social networks.

One key distinction between historical surveillance and that which takes place today is the fact that digital technology, often with constant network connectivity, is more tightly woven into the fabric of Americans’ lives. This reality intersects with increased police reliance on surveillance technology, such as mobile device location tracking and surveillance camera systems, to produce dramatically more impactful consequences for those in low-income groups. For instance, surveillance is not only being deployed aggressively by ICE as part of a ruthless deportation campaign under the Trump administration, but it is having a chilling effect on how Latinos living in the US engage in society that involves an online presence or component.

As Madden noted, US citizens and residents of low income backgrounds are more likely to use a mobile device as their primary means of accessing the internet. Though she did not elaborate on her reasoning for expressing it, this is a significant point. Mobile devices offer fewer, and less reliable, privacy tools than desktop or laptop devices. This is because mobile devices generally do not give their users access to low-enough levels of software to install privacy tools that function with any consistency.

The efficacy and reliability of privacy protections that manufacturers and operating system developers afford mobile devices also breaks down along class lines. “Carrier phones,” or mobile devices that feature cellular service carrier branding and proprietary software, are far less likely to receive security patches in a timely manner, but are also among the few phones that those of low-income backgrounds can afford. Only full-price “unlocked” phones, priced in hundreds of dollars and which must be purchased outright, are reasonably sure to receive security patches on time. And all of this is to say nothing of the cost associated with replacing a phone once it is out of the manufacturer’s security patch cycle–many poorer Americans are forced to continue using devices that are no longer updated, as they do not have the means of purchasing a new device every three to five years.

The limited means poor Americans possess for securing their devices translates into greater risk of harm from surveillance in that they are less resilient against surveillance software. While much deserved attention is dedicated to the danger to civil liberties posed by facial recognition software and drones, far less is devoted to surveillance software sold to governments by private vendors. In many cases, this software works by exploiting vulnerabilities in a device’s operating system, and these are more likely to be present in devices that are updated less frequently. By being more often relegated to outdated carrier phones, low-income Americans are more susceptible to this kind of intrusive software.

Cell site simulators, or stingrays as they’re often called, are also getting more sophisticated, and take advantage of many of the same vulnerabilities that surveillance software does. These devices are now so advanced that they are capable of intercepting SMS messages sent to or from devices within physical proximity to the hardware.

This aptly leads into a final point to consider, which is that along with having less financial means, low-income Americans often have fewer educational opportunities and little time to invest in digital security. Some forms of message and call interception can be thwarted by the use of encrypted messaging platforms, but as Madden points out in her piece, many low-income Americans don’t know where to find digital privacy and security resources.

This is why it is crucial for civil liberties and digital rights advocacy organizations to not only offer digital security training, as CCDBR routinely does in partnership with other local and national organizations, but to ensure that they serve the wider community, especially those in the greatest need.

You can read the full piece from The New York Times here.

Jonathan Terrasi has been a Research Assistant with the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights since January 2017. His interests include computer security, encryption, history, and philosophy. In his writing, he regularly covers topics on current affairs and political developments, as well as technical analyses and guides on security issues, published on his blog, Cymatic Scanning, and Linux Insider.