souplineWe all know about the “traditional” digital divide in which low-income folks have a harder time getting access to computers and other digital devices and the Internet, leaving them at a handicap in the modern digital world. We’re finally starting to reach the point where digital devices are cheap enough nearly everyone can get one, and the FCC is just about to vote on a plan that would give low-income people just over $9 a month to help with Internet service. But ReadWrite points out there’s another, more pernicious digital divide to worry about.

The poor, it turns out, have a lot fewer privacy rights than people who are better off. ReadWrite points to the example of conversations being recorded on public buses in Maryland, with the Maryland Senate delaying taking any action on it.

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.

Cheap devices have fewer privacy protections than the top-of-the-line Apple and Android devices that are also more expensive. We’ve already seen Amazon removing the ability to encrypt its Fires until public outcry caused it to reverse the decision. We also know a lot of cheap Chinese Android devices come pre-loaded with malware from the factory. Cheap PCs can be just as bad, with part of their cost being subsidized by tracking software that can be hard to get rid of.

The Internet connections the poor have to use are less secure, too—whether via ISPs such as AT&T that charge $20 extra not to track your browsing, or open WiFi hotspots that can be less secure than private networks. That $9 per month stipend might help with that, but it won’t solve it completely. You can’t get much Internet in America for $9 a month.

When low-income people file for unemployment benefits, food stamps, or heath insurance, they have to give up a lot of information about their income and expenditures—which is often stored in insecure computer systems.

And digital difficulties such as identity theft can hit the poor harder than the better-off, because they might not have as much time and resources to spend to get things straightened out.

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 [Seeta Peña Gangadharan, a Program Fellow at New America’s Open Technology Institute]. “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.”

It seems that part of the problem is the way that cheap devices and services need to be subsidized by someone—and since you don’t get something for nothing, you invariably give up something other than money. And easiest thing for someone to take is your privacy.

It’s terrific that tablets and phones are becoming cheap enough that anyone can have their own. But that just means we need to focus all the more on solving or at least lessening the privacy problem. But how can we do that?

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TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows has been writing for us--except for a brief interruption--since 2006. Son of two librarians, he has worked on a third-party help line for Best Buy and holds degrees in computer science and communications. He clearly personifies TeleRead's motto: "For geeks who love books--and book-lovers who love gadgets." Chris lives in Indianapolis and is active in the gamer community.


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