Prof. Gilman: Data Privacy Has Become ‘a Luxury’ Not Available to the Poor

In two recently published articles, Venable Professor of Law Michele Gilman argued that underprivileged Americans are unduly burdened by having to share a wealth of personal data in order to receive government benefits. Should that data then be compromised, she added, they face the risk of identity theft, which is expensive and extremely inconvenient to resolve.

In a March 18 article in Fast Company, “Trading privacy for survival is another tax on the poor,” Prof. Gilman noted that in some jurisdictions, for mothers to receive welfare benefits for their children, they must allow home inspections. Prof. Gilman said she finds these requirements excessive.

“I get valuable government benefits in my mortgage home deduction, childcare tax credits, my employer health benefits aren’t taxed,” Prof. Gilman said in the article. “Those are income transfers just as much as food stamps or welfare, but I am not put through intrusive questioning, verification requirements, home visits, or anything like that to get those benefits.”

Earlier this month, an article in Vice described how low-income Americans often find themselves trading personal information for benefits, including housing and food. “It’s a trade many residents are glad to make, especially when the alternative might be homelessness,” wrote author Elizabeth Brico in “‘Privacy Is Becoming a Luxury’: What Data Leaks Are Like for the Poor.” “But when a privacy breach occurs, it raises the question: what exactly are the poor giving up in order to survive, and what are the potential consequences?”

“For low-income people, the stakes [of a data breach] are higher,” Prof. Gilman told the magazine, citing as an example former clients who lost their utility service after someone set up a false account in their name, then did not pay the bills. “For people without money to quickly reinstate a utility service or hire a criminal attorney, those types of errors—even if eventually rectified—can have long-lasting consequences, including job loss or child protective involvement,” the article pointed out.

Prof. Gilman — who is director of the Saul Ewing Civil Advocacy Clinic at the UB School of Law — said that many times, names and addresses are enough to commit the types of identity fraud her low-income clients have faced. “It can cost time and money to clean up the effects of identity theft [and] because low-income people are already living on the economic margins, any loss of funds can be catastrophic,” she told Vice.

As early as 2012, Prof. Gilman was sounding the alarm about this issue in a Brooklyn Law Review article, “The Class Differential in Privacy Law.” And it’s not just the poor who suffer from government overreach, she warned. “Middle-class and wealthy Americans need to realize that novel surveillance techniques are typically used first on the poor,” she wrote. “By the time these strategies spread beyond controlling the poor, any ‘reasonable expectations’ against their use have dissolved.”

While not initially focused on data privacy as a civil rights attorney, she said the theme emerged as she worked with low-income families. “Through the stories of my clients I became interested in privacy issues which, I felt, were a luxury of wealthier people,” Prof. Gilman told Fast Company. “When you’re representing poor people it can be tempting to focus on immediate needs like housing, food, and healthcare, but dignity and autonomy, to me, are just as important.”

About University of Baltimore School of Law

The University of Baltimore School of Law provides a rigorously practical education, combining doctrinal coursework, intensive writing instruction, nationally renowned clinics and community-based learning to ensure that its graduates are exceptionally well prepared to practice law.
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