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Technology & Opportunity: Researcher says surveillance is separate and unequal

Alan Cleaver

Researchers are finding that poor and working class communities are often the test spaces for new surveillance technologies.

State of Opportunity intern and NPR Kroc Fellow Gabrielle Emanuel looked at how poor people are observed through photography and fine art.

But newer technologies, such as closed-circuit television, are also piloted in poor communities before being introduced to communities with more money.

And, more likely, people with greater financial resources have the means to protest invasions of their privacy. The United Kingdom, for example, has one of the most heavily observed populationsof any Western nation.

Officials said the cameras were installed in the interest of public safety, but researchers who actually talked to people in poor communities have found that numerous CCTV cameras don't, in fact, make people feel safer. Instead, anxiety is increased.  

As State University of New York at Albany Professor, and author of Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age Virginia Eubanks observes, "Marginalized people are in the dubious position of being both on the cutting edge of surveillance, and stuck in its backwaters."

In an article for Prospect, Eubanks gives several examples of how low-income communities become "low rights environments." She defines these environments as, "poor communities, repressive social programs, dictatorial regimes, and military and intelligence operations—where there are low expectations of political accountability and transparency." 

"...marginalized people are subject to some of the most technologically sophisticated and comprehensive forms of scrutiny and observation in law enforcement, the welfare system, and the low-wage workplace."

The defiance you may feel when you click "Don't Allow" in response to an app's request to use your location-based sensors in your mobile phone might not seem like all that much resistance when compared to the forms of surveillance Eubanks found in her research.

Take, for example, the observation people receiving food benefits experience. Already, what and how poor people eat is already in the media: should "they" be "allowed" tobuy soft drinks on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)?

Little considered, though, is how Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards are used to watch and track citizens.

One woman Eubanks interviewed shocked Eubanks when she said of EBT, “They’re great. Except [Social Services] uses them as a tracking device.” 

Eubanks' article, "Want to Predict the Future of Surveillance? Ask Poor Communities," gives several other examples to show that privacy and surveillance are civil rights issues.

Credit fotologic / Flickr

These issues collide with what we hear from the tech industry about trade-offs. In their glowing anticipation of the "Age of Context," tech evangelists Robert Scobel and Shel Israel make this optimistic claim about the loss of privacy, "..the more the technology knows about you, the more benefits you will receive."

They do acknowledge the creep-out factor in that statement, but they fail to also recognize the class and privilege inherent in being able to "opt-out." If your SNAP benefits or housing vouchers or work visa are dependent on opting-in to your actions being monitored, is that really an option at all? 

Responding to surveillance with, "Well, if you're not up to something, you don't have anything to worry about" falls a bit flat these days.

And, if we think beyond our own technological privileges, we get closer to Eubanks' urging that we see surveillance as a collective issue, not just an invasion of privacy. Tech offers us a lot of choices...or does it? 

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