Snowden's Leaks Reformed the NSA, but America Still Spies on the Poor

Data collection by the NSA pales in comparison with the surveillance endured by poor Americans.
A California woman holds up her Electronic Benefit Transfer card. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Jun 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

On Tuesday, the Senate passed a bill that will essentially end the National Security Agency’s ability to collect and store U.S. citizens’ phone data. The USA Freedom Act, which is backed by President Obama, will replace segments of the Patriot Act that expired on Sunday night.

Data collection and the broader issue of privacy have been fiercely debated, especially since 2013, when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the government’s process. Snowden caused many Americans to question whether—and to what extent—the government should be able to invade the privacy of its citizens in the name of national security. But for poor communities—particularly poor communities of color—Snowden’s revelations were one more drop in the bucket of government surveillance. Many programs and government services that intend to aid and uplift poor Americans come at the cost of their privacy.

Here are a few ways that poor Americans experience arguably intrusive government surveillance:

1. EBT and Food Stamps
Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, replaced most paper food stamp coupons with a card that looks much like a credit or debit card. When a user swipes an EBT card to make a purchase at the store, the state or federal agency that provided the card gets a record of what was purchased. The tracking of purchases by benefits recipients is intended to prevent fraud and to ensure that the money is used as intended. But for the many poor Americans who aren’t committing EBT fraud (that would be the majority), shopping for groceries comes at the cost of being watched.

2. Increased Police Presence in Poor Communities
Poor neighborhoods are often also high-crime neighborhoods. To combat crime, police officers are deployed, in large numbers, in impoverished communities. As seen in a 2013 lawsuit against New York City’s police department, an increased police presence in these neighborhoods doesn’t just mean officers are standing around and watching poor residents. In New York City, the court found, they were also unconstitutionally stopping residents—particularly young people of color—and patting them down. While focusing police efforts on poor, high-crime areas can reduce crime, it can also contribute to the rift between law enforcement and citizens.

3. Correctional Supervision or Control
Studies have found that more than half of all black men in the U.S. without a high school diploma go to prison at some point in their lives. That means that black men are also more likely to be on parole or probation, forms of surveillance that can sometimes include GPS monitoring. It is well documented that people of color, especially poor people, in the U.S. are disproportionately imprisoned.

4. The Fourth Amendment Is “Flexible”
The Fourth Amendment protects Americans’ right to privacy. But those protections aren’t always equally applied, observes Christopher Slobogin, director of Vanderbilt Law School’s criminal justice program. Take investigations of fraud. “The Supreme Court has held that a person suspected of welfare fraud has virtually no Fourth Amendment rights,” Slobogin tells TakePart, “whereas a person suspected of tax fraud is fully protected by the Fourth Amendment, when it comes to the searches of homes and businesses.” Technology like the NSA's metadata program has made it more likely that the privacy of wealthy people, as well as poor people, can be invaded, Slobogin said. That could draw more attention to the surveillance experiences of poor people in the U.S.