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Photo by Stacey MacNaught | CC BY 2.0

The Media, Inequality & Change (MIC) Center recently released a report on how data privacy concerns affect people who rely on smartphones for internet access. 

The center, a collaboration between Penn's Annenberg School for Communication and Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information, studied people who do not have regular computer access and rely on cell phones to use the internet. These individuals, who were likely to be low-income, Latinx, or black, were aware that their use of internet-connected apps compromised their privacy. However, many held themselves accountable for data collection by governments and corporations.

The researchers, led by Gwen Shaffer of California State University Long Beach and Jan Fernback of Temple University, organized focus groups with 79 participants who relied on phones for internet access in Philadelphia and Long Beach. Many participants were concerned about data privacy and said their concerns caused them to forgo opportunities. One subject, for example, said she refused to fill out online applications for jobs or credit cards.

However, the study participants seemed resigned to these privacy issues, and nearly all shared stories of compromising their privacy to use internet services. Even though they were aware that governments and corporations collect and use their private data, few said they would give up highly invasive apps like the Google search engine and Gmail for more secure ones. 

Many participants expressed the belief that they as individuals were responsible for safeguarding their data, not the government agencies, social media platforms, and corporations that track the data to begin with. 

The researchers stressed that low-income individuals who rely on cell phones for internet access are particularly susceptible to identity fraud, hacking, and security breaches, adding to the other inequalities they face. Those who participate in programs for low-income individuals, rely on public services, or live in subsidized housing are at an even greater risk for government surveillance. 

“Unfortunately, members of disadvantaged populations are frequent targets of data profiling by retailers hoping to sell them cheap merchandise or bait them into taking out subprime loans,"  Shaffer said in an Annenberg press release. "They may be charged higher insurance premiums or find their job applications rejected. Ultimately, the inequities they experience off-line are compounded by online privacy challenges.”

The researchers said data privacy is a human right and a fundamental value in democratic society, arguing that it should be considered a social justice issue.   

“Our findings shed light on the added dangers to information privacy that lower-income, cell-mostly internet users face and how those dangers shape their online behaviors,” Fernback told Penn Today. 

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