How Much Privacy Do You Think You Have When Using the Internet?

By Irasema Garza, J.D., Policy Advisor, NCLR Policy Analysis Center

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Photo: G4ll4is

Internet privacy concerns among Latinos are on the rise. A recent poll found that close to two-thirds of Latinos have little or no privacy expectations when using the Internet. And they are not alone. All groups surveyed responded similarly.

Edward Snowden’s revelation last year that the National Security Agency (NSA) was reading our email and tracking our phone calls was disturbing for many Americans. It marked a pivotal point in which an increasing number of Americans are expressing concerns over the scope and depth of how the U.S. government’s spying program targets its own citizens.

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Photo: Intel Free Press

After the September 11 attacks, government surveillance measures increased exponentially. Yet most Americans considered them necessary to protect our national security. There was an implied understanding that we had to sacrifice some privacy in exchange for safety. Since then, tight airport security measures, heavy police presence at busy train terminals, and abundant street cameras watching our every move have become commonplace for the American public. However, we know we’re being watched because we can see ourselves being watched. That’s not so with Internet surveillance, which is almost always conducted without the knowledge or consent of the public.

Latinos, other communities of color, and religious minorities have additional reason to be concerned about Internet surveillance. Sophisticated technology enables the government to collect, or acquire from third parties, massive amounts of personal data, resulting in increased risk of profiling and other discriminatory practices. Law enforcement agencies, for example, routinely request major telephone companies and technology giants like Google to disclose data records, including websites visited by specific individuals. The number of law enforcement requests is so staggering that in 2012 AT&T (just one of several companies that receives requests from law enforcement) reported it employs 100 people to process those requests.

It’s not just government surveillance that should have Latinos concerned. Data collection technology allows private industry to track the Internet activity of visitors to a company’s website, even after visitors have left the website. The CBS television news program 60 Minutes recently featured a segment about data brokers, who are part of a multibillion-dollar industry dedicated to tracking individuals surfing the web. They collect and analyze massive amounts of data with little or no regulatory oversight. Personal information is sold to third parties, including other data brokers, or shared with government agencies without individuals’ knowledge or consent. Data brokers and ad hackers are able to compile amassed online and offline data (cell phone tracking, for example) to create a map detailing an individual’s every move.

Photo: Mike Licht
Photo: Mike Licht

Some data brokers work to identify underbanked consumers. The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation conducted an oversight hearing on the data broker industry and found, among other things, that a data tracking company created consumer profiles and assigned descriptive titles such as “Ethnic-Second City Strugglers” and “Credit Crunched: City Families” to attract companies that sell high-cost loans and other financial services to vulnerable communities in need of immediate cash.

Without question, technology has vastly enhanced our lives, making it easier to conduct research, study, learn, stay connected, bank, and shop. It has also enabled unparalleled levels of intrusion into our daily activities with potentially serious implications for groups that have historically been targets of discrimination. Government and businesses making use of data collection technology should abide by notions of fairness, equality, and justice to protect against civil rights violations. These principles were codified and recently published by NCLR and other civil rights organizations to emphasize that technological progress must include safeguards and economic opportunity for all communities. Without these protections, the most we can hope for is an ever-shrinking level of privacy.

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