The reality of situations of poverty sometimes mean also facing inequality when it comes to one’s right. One may live in a country where a poor – or poorly enforced – legal framework offers little protection. One may have to turn to low cost technology that is not as protective for one’s security and privacy than a more recent or more expensive device. One may need to rely on state services that imply having to hand over large amount of personal information in order to access support. In those situations, one may feel like there is a trade-off to make between their right to privacy and the need to access basic necessities. We think this is never a trade-off one should have to make.

What is the problem?

The issues related to the right to privacy and data exploitation when one is economically disadvantaged are multiple.

One of them has to do with the way we access public services. Indeed, The current and emerging process to access these public benefits is currently designed and managed in a way that it comes at the cost of our privacy, dignity and autonomy.

The lack of integration of privacy, data protection, and security within this sector means that individuals are currently having to accept a trade-off between accessing social protection programmes and their fundamental rights to privacy and non-discrimination, amongst others.

Little or no measures are taken to ensure third-parties, such as the companies that develop these programmes, are not undermining the rights of individuals. There are also concerns with how private actors reconcile these sorts of initiatives with their commercial interests.

Another issue has to do with the reality of low-cost technology. While buying a recent Apple phone will guarantee you a secure operating system(OS) and good encryption, buying a low-cost brand can often leave you with an OS with vulnerabilities left unpatched for years, and apps that share your personal data in plain text. Even downloading apps that offer secure communications can prove extremely difficult, on those low-cost phones. As many rely on cheap phones as their sole way to access the internet, we're now seeing that privacy is becoming a luxury that few can afford.

We also note that inequality exist because of the differences in legal framework from one country to another. Data protection laws have been adopted in over 120 countries, but in many cases they are old, ineffective and/or poorly enforced.

What is the solution?

When it comes to welfare programmes, Privacy, security and data protection safeguards must be considered from the onset, when deciding if a new social protection programme is necessary, through the whole decision-making process from design, implementation to maintenance.

The collection and processing of personal data as part of social benefits programmes must be strictly necessary and proportionate to make a fair assessment as to whether a person is elegible and then maintain access to welfare support.

There needs to be effective oversight of how welfare programmes operate and are functioning in place to ensure that particular groups of people are not disproportionately affected, and where violations do occur they are effectively investigated and sanctioned.

At the moment, when it comes to data protection legislations, many countries are debating new (or reformed) laws. There are more than two billion inhabitants who stand the chance to have their rights better protected. To seize these opportunities, it is key that these new laws are approved in a way that ends the ‘data wild west’ in which many people are living today. We need to put a stop on how some companies operate across the world by taking advantage of deficient privacy frameworks.

What PI is doing

Privacy International works with a network of partner organisations to promote strong legislations worldwide to protect the right to privacy.

We are also supporting the work of our partner organisations in various countries to produce research documenting the impact of the surveillance of benefits claimants.

PI aims to connect with leading national and international organisations working on social justice and fair access to public services to identify opportunities for collaboration and joint action and promote the development of a privacy lens to the work conducted on welfare.

PI is working to expose and document the suppliers of tech solutions in state-run social protection programmes in order to shed light on the dual nature of the surveillance of benefits claimants, one where the private sector promotes the development of data-intensive welfare programmes for their own ends.

We are working with the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty to highlight the importance of the right to privacy and the impact of data exploitation on the delivery of social services across the world.

PI will be alerting the donor community and other drivers of data intensive welfare programmes to ensure that the dignity, and rights of individuals, especially those most marginalised, are protected in the programmes they fund and encourage, particularly in countries where these are being developed as part of development and aid projects.

When it comes to low-cost technology, Privacy International has alerted Alphabet Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai asking Google to take action against exploitative pre-installed software on Android devices.