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Undocumented immigrants' privacy at risk online, on phones

Friday, 04/06/2018

Every day, undocumented immigrants in the U.S. face discrimination, surveillance, deportation and other dangers. 

So, they’re careful. 

They limit contact with authorities, keep close-knit circles, and avoid loitering too long in parks, supermarkets, shows and other public gatherings. Some even avoid driving altogether.

But when it comes to their smartphones, immigrants struggle to apply this instinctive caution, according to a study by the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI). 

The study, “Keeping a Low Profile? Technology, Risk and Privacy among Undocumented Immigrants,” found that, on the one hand, this struggle “is surprising, considering the far greater threat that information disclosures can have on their lives,” says principal investigator Florian Schaub, assistant professor at UMSI and the College of Engineering.

“On the other hand, we know that managing privacy online is quite challenging for everyone, and this appears to hold up, even for communities with heightened risks, such as this one.” 

Overall, the study provides insights into this community’s technology use practices. It identifies several reasons why online privacy concerns may not be a priority.

First, smartphones and social media provide them “indispensable benefits,” according to the study. A few immigrants in the study wondered about potential risks, such as how friends and contacts might handle information about them. 

But for the most part, the risks are vague, while trust in major social media platforms and peers is high, all leading to limited perceptions of online risks.

Finally, says Tamy Guberek, UMSI PhD candidate and lead author of the study, these immigrants "believe the government already knows a lot about them, so it caused them not to worry too much about online privacy."

Meanwhile, “U.S. authorities are rapidly building up their tech-enabled surveillance and detention tools.” 

The study involved interviews with 17 male and female Latin American undocumented immigrants in the Midwest. About half of the study participants said that, in their personal lives, they try to avoid thinking too much about daily risks. 

However, the other half make significant adjustments, such as limiting exposure to authorities; not leaving their children home alone; avoiding speaking Spanish at stores; and sharing important information with fellow immigrants.

Yet, “even minor decisions, such as the use of phone numbers as account identifiers, can substantially affect the exposure risk of vulnerable communities,” according to the study.  

“The immigrants we interviewed know they’re at higher risk of detention and deportation,” Guberek says, “but it appears the benefits of technology outweigh uncertain tech-related risks.”

The study’s results pinpoint possible ways to mitigate the online privacy issue for undocumented immigrants. 

Existing online digital security resources don’t reach this group, either because they don’t have the habit of seeking such information online, or because they are not readily accessible in Spanish. 

“Community trainings should emphasize that online privacy and security is a shared responsibility,” Schaub says. “Thus, awareness and mitigation of risks lies with immigrants themselves, and with the larger mixed-status communities in which they are embedded.” 

Designing more explicit and usable transparency cues and privacy controls could prove helpful, as well, since the owner and others may be at risk if the phone is lost, searched or confiscated. 

In addition, more research should help find ways to hide information on demand, and plausible deniability, the authors recommend. Research on increasing awareness and accurate understanding of information flows would also benefit the immigrants – and all Internet users. 

“We don’t need new apps or technology just for this community,” Schaub says. “Instead, we need to make it easier for everyone to use privacy and security tools, while accounting for the problems vulnerable communities encounter.”

UMSI already is taking action on this front, he adds.

“Since completing the study, we have developed a Spanish-language, digital security training and have started holding workshops in collaboration with immigrant rights organizations.”

This study has been honored as a “Best Paper of CHI 2018” at the annual ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, the premier publication venue for human-computer interaction research, in April in Montreal. It is one of five UMSI papers to earn special recognition at CHI 2018; two earned Best Paper Awards, and three have earned Honorable Mention designation. Along with Guberek and Schaub, authors of this study include: Allison McDonald, PhD student, U-M Computer Science and Engineering; Sylvia Simioni, UMSI MSI student; Abraham Mhaidli, UMSI PhD student; and Kentaro Toyama, UMSI W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor.

A list of the U-M and UMSI participants at the CHI Conference is here. 

- Sheryl James, UMSI PR Specialist