Privacy and Welfare Surveillance among Vulnerable Communities

This blog post is part of a series by Chioma Nwaodike, a lawyer from Nigeria who is currently an Atlas Corps Internet Policy Fellow at Internews. Her blog posts discuss a broad range of topics around digital rights and internet freedom.

In November I attended the “The Color of Surveillance: Monitoring Poor and Working People” conference, hosted by Georgetown University Law Center in partnership with Free Press and MediaJustice. The Color of Surveillance conference addressed the dynamics of privacy, surveillance, and technology in the context of the experiences of the poor, the unhoused, and low-income workers.


Coming from a legal background, I was amazed to hear the experiences of those directly affected by surveillance. I had never considered the concept of surveillance in the context of low-income workers and homeless people, but the speakers opened my eyes to the fact that digital rights encompass a broader range of issues than I had previously thought. Learning about the different forms of surveillance that infringe upon the rights of the homeless and poor has impressed upon me the need to expand the scope of “inclusion” in digital rights policies.

The Problem

During the conference, an occupant of public housing shared her experience fighting the installation of camera equipment outside of her apartment, after receiving letters from the housing authority notifying her of the installment. Her 17-year-old daughter, who was at home when the housing authority officers arrived to install the camera, refused them entry. After she filed a written grievance to the Housing Authority, the officers returned and started drilling to install the camera at her door. Allegedly, when she prevented them from entering, the officers forcibly pushed and dragged her on the floor, and the camera equipment got damaged in the melee. However, when she called 911 and eight neighborhood police officers showed up, she was the one who was arrested and charged with assault and destruction of property for preventing the house authority officers from doing their job. Her 22-year-old son, who challenged the assault against his mother, was charged with assault and threat to bodily harm. When they were released from the station the next day, they realized that the camera had been installed in their absence. The mother’s complaints and grievances were never answered.


The speaker also mentioned that more than 80 cameras were installed in the neighborhood without public notices or information provided by the housing authority. The argument is often made that public rights supersede those of the individual with relation to public safety, and such steps may be justified for the purpose of preventing crimes. However, it seems clear that those experiencing a surveillance crisis are disproportionately people of color.

Where is the due process for individuals experiencing this kind of change? At the very least, residents of these neighborhoods should be informed or involved in the process. And is this process something that could happen in wealthy neighborhoods? If not, why are those in public housing subjected to this type of surveillance? From the stories shared during the conference, it seems that homelessness, criminalization, and surveillance all go hand in hand.

The Legality of Surveillance

By agreeing to live in public housing, the occupant gives his or her consent for welfare visits. But who approves these visits? Where is the oversight? It was disheartening to learn that in Wyman V. James (1971) the Supreme Court ruled that welfare home visits do not amount to a search, a ruling that I believe should be challenged. In my opinion, welfare home visits, like surveillance, should be subject to certain conditions and requirements, such as requiring a search warrant be approved by a higher authority before commencing the visit.

More broadly, there is no comprehensive privacy law in the United States. The laws are scattered across different statutes and protect certain categories of information. For instance, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) governs the collection of health information, while the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is associated with the use and disclosure of student educational information. In the absence of comprehensive privacy law, navigating these laws and regulations can be overwhelming, making the protections they lay out difficult to access and implement.

Welfare and Data Privacy

During the conference, Michele Gilman, a Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore, and Mary Madden, a researcher at Data and Society, told the untold stories of the ways in which low-income communities experience privacy-related harms.

Welfare recipients, who live in heavily policed neighborhoods, need to work in order to receive benefits and are subject to greater suspicion and monitoring when they apply for government support. For example, in certain places, applicants must undergo fingerprinting and drug testing in order to qualify for public benefits like food stamps. Low-income workers are also subjected to unpleasant questioning; CCTV monitoring; verification requirements such as home visits, phone calls, collection of biometric info, and drug tests; and other conditions that must be fulfilled for employment.

Once people start receiving benefits, officials regularly monitor them to see how they spend the money and sometimes check in on them in their homes. In addition, they also lose out on educational and job opportunities if their online profiles and employment histories aren’t sufficiently visible (or curated).

In contrast, higher-income recipients of government wealth transfers are not subjected to the same kind of aggressive data collection. The upper class receives benefits such as tax breaks, yet their privacy is respected. They are not, for example, subject to checks to see whether they are using their deductions wisely. Poor people are also audited at a much higher rate.

Data gathered from these sources – public-benefits programs, child-welfare systems, and monitoring programs for domestic-abuse offenders – can end up feeding back into police systems, leading to a cycle of surveillance. Once an arrest crops up on a person’s record, it becomes much more difficult for that person to find a job, secure a loan, or even rent a home.

The large amount of data gathered on users who are disproportionately poor is concerning. While most people are not aware that they are captured in these big-data information flows, the inclusion of their data can nevertheless have concrete impacts on opportunities. In fact, the reality is that not only do the poor care about their privacy, but they often care more than the middle class and wealthy folks. This is because the consequences of privacy breaches are often far more devastating for the poor than they are for the wealthy. The issue is that they lack the resources to challenge unfair outcomes or the ability to protect their right to privacy.

Guaranteeing the Right to Privacy as a Human Right

The right to privacy is a fundamental human right that is applicable to everyone, whether poor or rich, housed or homeless. International human rights instruments frown at any form of discrimination, and the same rules and processes should be applicable to both the rich and the poor. In fact, the privacy of the poor should be given even more consideration in light of the dynamics explored above. In the U.S. there is a need to consolidate privacy laws for easy access, and to reform the public housing system with privacy in mind.

Looking at my country, Nigeria, I wondered how this situation might unfold there. But there is no basis for comparison between what is applicable in the U.S. to Nigeria with regards to surveillance of the homeless and low-income workers. Where do you even start a discussion about the intersection of poverty, privacy and data security considering the situation in Nigeria? There is no public housing system in Nigeria, where it is estimated that 75% of urban settlers live in poor-quality housing. With the challenges of the housing situation in Nigeria, I think most people might be willing to trade their privacy for a place. I don’t believe surveillance would be as much of an issue. Probably, the discussion might be from the context of  surveillance or unreasonable searches and seizures by the Nigerian Police Force/Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) on the poor and youth as opposed to wealthier people.

These questions are crucial to think about in order to understand and address the disparity in privacy-related harms experienced by the poor and the wealthy. While looking at possible solutions, it is important to discuss the absence of robust data protection laws, the inadequate protection of the right to privacy in the Terrorism (Prevention) Act and the Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention) Act, and finally, the proliferation of big-data information flows like those on SIM card registration, mobile phone services, internet services providers, and immigration databases.JANUARY 16, 2020