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"If I’m Not Doing Anything Wrong, So What?"
How Social Media Data Breaches Disproportionately Impact People of Color and the Poor

Gwen Shaffer

As we all know, participation in the modern world demands disclosure of personal information, and our increasing reliance on mobile devices compounds this reality. Today, we routinely communicate with friends through Facebook Messenger. We skip the mall and, instead, use our smartphones to fill Amazon shopping carts. And nearly 60% of all internet searches in the United States originate on a mobile device. Within each of these contexts, we willingly disclose—or inadvertently reveal—our political opinions, values and personal interests.

When people access the internet using a mobile device they leave behind an average of 32 “digital traces”—from their browser histories and phone numbers, to geo-locations and photos. Previous research found that apps leak significantly more device-specific information compared to websites. Because economically disadvantaged individuals, as well as people of color, connect to the internet via mobile phones more than three times as frequently as Caucasians and wealthier Americans, these populations are more vulnerable to privacy violations by corporations, social media platforms and government. For instance, low-income Americans are the targets of data profiling by payday lenders hoping to bait them into taking out subprime loans, and retailers who make assumptions about which products to offer.

My current research project—conducted with Temple University faculty Dr. Jan Fernback—aims to gain a deeper understanding of how marginalized groups who rely on cell phones to access the internet are disproportionately impacted by the tracking, storing and sharing of personal data on their devices. We examine whether social capital for the urban poor, African Americans and Hispanics is diminished by near-constant monitoring and frequent disclosure of digital data.

In May 2017, Dr. Fernback and I facilitated focus groups at Centro C.H.A., which advocates for Hispanic youth and families in Long Beach. One participant told us "hacking" and privacy breaches are bad, but "unless it happens to you, it just goes out of your head." Several participants said they were unconcerned because "the government already has your information." In fact, participants frequently associated privacy breaches with government rather than corporations, online advertisers or social media platforms. "If I’m not doing anything wrong, so what?" one participant asked.

Gwen Shaffer with a research assistant

Dr. Shaffer with one of her computer science research assistants.

Ultimately, our study findings will serve as the basis for a public information campaign designed to improve mobile device security and privacy awareness among disadvantaged urban populations. Dr. Fernback and I are pursuing grant funding to place ads on public transportation in Long Beach and Philadelphia (and, eventually, other cities) with instructions for securing mobile phone data. We also plan to utilize a texting platform to disseminate mobile phone privacy tips and information.

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