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Save the World, Help the NSA?

A New America study ponders privacy for new Internet users in an "age of tracking."
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As recently as two years ago, it was pretty easy to find serious people arguing that Facebook would end dictatorship and smartphone-based microbanking would end poverty. The more people got online, went the idea, the more democratic power they had.

A New America Foundation study (PDF here, a quick 18 pages) argues that has all changed post-Snowden. The short version: no one bothered to tell people new to the Internet, and brought there for do-gooder reasons—political participation, banking and insurance, distance learning, jobs—that someone might be listening. Writes the study's author, Seeta Peña Gangadharan: "Until now, most policy studies of digital inclusion have neglected the particularities of privacy and surveillance challenges faced by marginal Internet users."

It's an obvious point once articulated, but not one typically made so clearly. How does someone not yet often online, but likely to be soon, regard technological threats to his or her privacy? Do new users of digital technologies have less fluency with digital norms, and less facility with privacy protections? Gangadharan says yes, making three main points:

(1) Marginal Internet users face real, tangible online privacy and surveillance problems.

(2) Marginal Internet users care about privacy and want to know who watches them online, worry about future harm due to surveillance, and wish to avoid harms.

(3) Digital literacy institutions struggle to meet the online privacy needs of marginal Internet users.

If that's true, then our ongoing efforts to save the world with broadband would have to take that into account.

At the same time that systems of data-driven discrimination are expanding, decision makers have identified digital inclusion initiatives as a means to help these very same vulnerable groups learn how to use the Internet and computers, and take advantage of online economic, social, and political opportunities. Whether motivated by public policies or profit, these efforts promise to help increase employment and education levels, inspire civic participation, and contribute to the 21st century information economy. But if online privacy and surveillance problems are increasing, and the discriminatory effects of data profiling are becoming evermore apparent, what does being digitally included mean?

It means being spied on and data mined without our consent, or at least vulnerable to both, is the apparent implication. The key recommendation of the report is that the tech industry move to make security-related parts of apps and devices as easy to use as "sunscreen and seatbelts," and teaching people about digital privacy as part of basic digital literacy. Failing that, efforts to address the long-hyped "digital divide" will only create a kind of privacy divide. The report's recommendation:

End-user privacy protection should be available to all individuals—not just to “digital natives” or individuals with postgraduate degrees. Some researchers have suggested that engineers embed or “bake” privacy protection features into digital technologies, creating “privacy by default." Products with these built-in privacy features would be one less worry for underserved populations as they turn to the Internet to take care of critical personal needs.

To do that would require private industry to make the tech available, or someone else to do it.