Undocumented immigrants’ privacy at risk online, on phones

When it comes to their smartphones, immigrants struggle to apply instinctive caution, according to a study by a team of University of Michigan researchers.

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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 a team of University of Michigan researchers that included CSE PhD student Allison McDonald.

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, an assistant professor at the School of Information (SI), who also holds an appointment at CSE in 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, 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 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.

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.

Source: Sheryl James, Public Relations Specialist at the School of Information