Deutsche Bank Report Ignites Debate on Blacks and Privacy

By Nora Macaluso

When Deutsche Bank, the global financial-services company, issued a recent report recommending that Big Tech invest $15 billion over five years to help bridge the racial technology gap, it included the finding that just one in 20 African Americans cited privacy as their primary concern relating to technology. 

Privacy, the September report suggested, might be a “luxury” in light of more pressing inequities keeping Blacks and Hispanics out of the workforce.

Researchers told Digital Privacy News that data was lacking on privacy and people of color.

“I’ve been doing a big literature review,” said Elissa Redmiles, research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Germany.

“Three papers of 100 look at race and either security or privacy, so it hasn’t been studied a lot,” she added. “It’s absolutely something people need to look at.

“There’s really a gap there. There were like 60 papers on gender and three on race,” Redmiles said.

Since big technology companies’ business models are built on getting access to data, it would seem in their interest to make privacy a low priority in working to bring technology to underserved communities.

That’s not necessarily the case, however, privacy experts said. 

“The need for privacy doesn’t have to get in the way of Blacks equally accessing technology — or tech firms providing needed technology — plus doing their due diligence in protecting privacy,” Grace Buckler, founder and CEO of the Privacy Advocate in Washington, told Digital Privacy News.

Her firm provides privacy education and consulting services to organizations.

“It shouldn’t even be compared,” Buckler said.

“The need for privacy doesn’t have to get in the way of Blacks equally accessing technology. … It shouldn’t even be compared.”

Grace Buckler, the Privacy Advocate consultancy.

Apjit Walia, global technology strategist at the German-based bank, countered: “It’s not that privacy is not important.”

But a large number of people are without access to “basic technology” such as laptops or broadband, he argued, and “that’s what we believe might be the reason” for many African Americans saying privacy was not a top concern.

With connectivity being “a basic necessity of life, it becomes less important compared to others,” Walia said.

Big Tech’s Interest

Big Tech, in fact, has an interest in being more inclusive — as putting technology in more hands means reaching more potentially loyal customers, said Michele Gilman, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

“These aren’t nonprofit organizations, I get that, but at minimum, by helping people connect, you’re creating potential customers and potential employees,” she told Digital Privacy News. “What’s the incentive not to?

“People are keenly aware that their privacy is at stake when they engage online,” Gilman said, but “they don’t feel they have the tools to calibrate it.

“Three papers of 100 look at race and either security or privacy, so it hasn’t been studied a lot.”

Elissa Redmiles, Max Planck Institute for Software Systems.

“The problem right now is the onus is entirely on the consumer, who lacks knowledge and leverage” to demand that their data be kept private, she continued.

“We would want, as we close the digital divide, people to have the knowledge and tools to calibrate their privacy needs on their own terms.” 

It can be “problematic” when tech companies give out laptops preloaded with tracking or profiling software — as some did early in the pandemic — but “we can’t put all the onus on Big Tech, because that’s legal to do right now,” Gilman said. “So, we really do need new laws.”

Technology Is Necessary

Privacy was not the primary focus of the Deutsche Bank report, Walia said.

“If you’re worried about just connectivity, you’re worried about having a laptop — that’s your primary concern,” he told Digital Privacy News. “That’s something you want to address first.” 

Technology has become “so relevant” in society that not having it is “like not having sanitation in some parts of the world,” Walia added.

That’s become particularly clear during the pandemic. “If you can’t get a work-from-home job, that puts you at risk.”

That may be, but privacy should still be front and center, even when it comes to training and education, experts told Digital Privacy News.

Buckler said a skills gap was prevalent in minority communities “because relevant technology resources are not poured into the community and schools.

“It’s not that privacy is not important.”

Apjit Walia, Deutsche Bank.

“When it comes time to pursue particular careers, a certain group will be left behind,” she said.

“Privacy requires the same: If there’s not enough education and awareness, people don’t even know what privacy they need.”

‘Taken Advantage’

Tazin Khan Norelius, founder and CEO of the Cyber Collective, said: “It’s not that (big tech companies) haven’t considered marginalized peoples.

“They have considered marginalized peoples — and they’ve taken advantage.

The Cyber Collective consists of technology professionals seeking to help marginalized communities and technology companies address gaps in the tech space.

“Convenience technologies are constantly being made and marketed to minority communities,” Norelius said.

When the Cyber Collective recently met with women of color about privacy terms for an astrology app, Co-Star, she said that “what these women did not know was what they were actually giving up” in terms of personal information.  

The COVID Factor

That’s changing, Norelius observed.

“COVID was the catalyst of this information that’s reached the public — because conversations around contact-tracing really started,” she told Digital Privacy News.

It “really ignited the public” when people realized their locations, contacts and daily lives could be traced, Norelius said.

The pandemic provided a “tipping point” on privacy awareness for people of color, she added.

Being asked to provide information for contact-tracing apps — along with seeing news reports about Black Lives Matter protesters being tracked down based on photographs on social media — set off alarm bells, she said.

“The problem right now is the onus is entirely on the consumer, who lacks knowledge and leverage.”

Michele Gilman, University of Baltimore School of Law.

“People are starting to realize, oh —-, all my information is available for anyone to have,” Norelius said.

“These conversations have been ongoing for years and years and years, but I have never seen it be as prevalent publicly as it is today.”

According to the Privacy Advocate’s Buckler: “The Black community knows it shouldn’t give up privacy to get technologies. Privacy is about fairness.

“Giving up freedom for opportunities is unfair,” she told Digital Privacy News.

Baltimore ‘Spy-Plane’ Saga

There’s a lack of confidence in systems that collect and use personal data, including government, law enforcement, tech companies and potential employers, Buckler said.

“If anyone is doubting that Blacks are concerned about their privacy,” they should look to Baltimore citizens’ complaints about the city’s aerial-surveillance program, she said.

“People care about their privacy enough to go to privacy watchdogs such as the ACLU to say: ‘Come help us fight this. We’re getting unnecessarily arrested, tracked, and monitored.’”

Big Tech has “considered marginalized peoples — and they’ve taken advantage.”

Tazin Khan Norelius, the Cyber Collective.

Baltimore community groups joined with the American Civil Liberties Union to sue city officials over funding a controversial aerial-surveillance program managed by the Baltimore Police Department.

City officials denied the funds earlier this month — and a challenge to a federal appellate court decision upholding the program is pending.

“That’s an example,” Buckler told Digital Privacy News, “of people caring about their privacy.”

Nora Macaluso is a Philadelphia writer.