As the federal government seeks to improve the digital divide between the rest of the nation and Native Americans, there is no denying that data brokers are poised to mine data from indigenous people unless legislation protects indigenous data sovereignty.
Only about five in ten Native Americans with a computer have access to high-speed internet. In comparison, over eight in ten persons who do not identify as a member of an indigenous group have access to high-speed internet. This gapping digital divide is one of the issues the Biden-Harris administration seeks to close by injecting 65 billion dollars to improve internet infrastructure for low-income families as well as people living in rural areas and tribal communities.
Between 2013 and 2020, the Census Bureau collected data about if and how people access the internet. Of particular interest is the unmistakable national gap in the subscription rates to high-speed internet between Native Americans (67 percent) and other Americans (82 percent). The American Indian Policy Institute (AIPI) at Arizona State University also conducted a similar study, and the results were largely the same.
Dr. Traci Morris, Executive Director of the AIPI, says the figures are hardly surprising. The academic and policy advocate also pointed out that Native Americans living on tribal lands are the least connected and under-served demographic regarding access to the internet. According to Dr. Morris, the gap has been endemic for a long time. However, the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns spotlight the reality of access to digital technology for Native Americans.
“People couldn’t get telehealth because we have this incredible divide in Indian Country,” said Dr. Morris.
Dr. Morris is one of the few researchers examining the impact of the digital divide in Native American communities. In April 2021, she gave expert testimony about the state of broadband infrastructure in tribal lands during a hearing of the House of Representatives Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States. Citing data from several surveys, Dr. Morris also noted that this disparity hinders American Indians’ access to education, health care, job opportunities, and even civic engagement.
And to boot, a 2019 survey found that 1 in 3 Native American households depend on cellphones for various online activities. Still, most of these people depend on broadband at the local library or school to get online. While the internet infrastructure spending will indeed alleviate this digital divide, it raises another question: exposing the data of more Native Americans to data brokers.
Data brokers are companies that collect data for profiling and monetizing the data harvested about customers. Monetization happens when the data brokers sell user data to companies seeking to target a specific demographic with advertisements about their products and services based on information about the user’s traits and online habits.
Data brokers claim collection is anonymous, but evidence strongly suggests otherwise. For one, matching data to the owner is hardly a challenge for companies with the necessary tools— as Elizabeth Goiten of the Brennan Center for Justice pointed out in this article on the collection and exploitation of digital data.
Social media companies are at the forefront of digital privacy concerns. For example, Facebook allegedly turned a blind eye and even enabled troll farms target over 400,000 Native American users with …….