By Seeta Gangadharan and Aleta Sprague at Slate – For centuries, political authorities have punished the poor for being poor. In colonial America, for example, “overseers of the poor” required the destitute to wear badges.
Today, “overseers of the poor” are as much code—database queries to check eligibility—as they are people and institutions. Welfare programs collect massive amounts of data that are stored in potentially unsecure databases for unknown amounts of time, with unspecified permissions control or criteria for caseworker access. Poor people in the welfare system don’t have privacy, and they don’t factor into broader debates on protecting individuals’ liberty and right to be left alone.
This isn’t just a hypothetical. Rogue actors have targeted databases for public assistance programs, leaving poor people exposed and exploited.
One of the more egregious examples comes out of Utah, where in 2010 a Department of Workforce Services employee accessed a client database and released to the media, law enforcement, and governor’s office the names of benefits recipients who were allegedly unauthorized to be in the United States. In response, the state instituted a “zero tolerance” policy for unauthorized database access—but after 24 workers were fired, the penalty was reduced to a four-day suspension. In a separate incident two years later, hackers stole 250,000 Social Security numbers from the Utah state government’s server, along with “less-sensitive information” from about 500,000 more.