We Don’t Need a National Data Center of the Poor

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
May 8, 2018

In data privacy, as in so many other matters, past is prologue. Fifty years ago, there were calls for a “National Data Center” amassing all personal data collected by federal agencies. Supporters claimed it would lead to more efficiency and better research. Congressional hearings made clear that the bigger the database, the greater risk of abuse, and the more opportunities for errors. Congress ultimately rejected that “Orwellian nightmare,” as a New York Times editorial put it on Aug. 9, 1966. Instead, it passed the Privacy Act of 1974, establishing procedural restraints on federal agencies’ data practices.

The National Data Center may not have materialized, but the impulse behind it—what we can think of as a “data-collection imperative”—never faded. For low-income people, the specter of total state surveillance is quite real. The merger of big data and law enforcement results in persistent, indiscriminate surveillance of poor communities. Public benefits programs subjectthe poor to intrusive and demeaning interrogations and inspections.

Now, legislation advancing in the House of Representatives would establish what amounts to a National Data Center of the Poor: a national database of all recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). Under the proposal, the Department of Agriculture, with the assistance of private vendors, would amass the highly sensitive information—Social Security numbers, asset information, birthdates, and more—of the more than 40 million individuals receiving food assistance. Because SNAP has a high turnover rate as people find better jobs and leave the program, roughly 60 million people would have their information included in this database over the course of a year.

Read the full piece at Slate