The dimensions of broadband access reflect similar patterns of social inequality, and those who often rely on public libraries for internet access are often at risk of cybersecurity concerns and have less privacy, making them vulnerable to online scams and identity theft, for example.
University of Kansas researchers have received a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to study digital inequalities in Kansas and begin designing a set of cybersecurity and privacy tools to protect public broadband users.
"The direct impact of these security risks on these users can be profound; they may reduce already limited financial means, affect employment opportunities, undermine creditworthiness, limit access to suitable housing and threaten the provision of governmental support and services," said Bill Staples, professor of sociology and the grant's principal investigator. "Furthermore, digital discrimination and online victimization experiences may prompt these users to restrict their online activity and thereby limit the potential benefits from access, further exacerbating their social and civic isolation, reinforcing pre-existing inequities and channeling life chances downward."
Staples' co-principal investigator is Perry Alexander, the AT&T Foundation Distinguished Professor of Electrical & Computer Science and director of KU's Information & Telecommunication Technology Center, or the ITTC.
The research team will conduct ethnographic research in public libraries of two diverse northeast Kansas communities, developing detailed knowledge of these public broadband users' activities and needs. The ITTC will provide technical expertise to begin to design a solution.
"It's what I’ve been calling a 'Digital Swiss Army Knife.' This will be a set of tools on a portable USB-style device that will provide user password generation and protection, secure access to important personal information and ensure that their session on public computers is protected," Staples said. "This prototype will be modified based on what we learn through the fieldwork and tested in the field."
Alexander said the interdisciplinary partnership will be a key to the project.
"Using results of ethnographic studies, ITTC researchers will develop technology to help protect marginalized users. While a number of technologies exist for preserving privacy, they must be selected and adapted to fit this user community," he said. "It is easy to build a solution that is technologically sound but does not meet the needs of its target audience. By working with sociologists informing technologists, we hope to avoid this problem."
Staples, who is chair of the Department of Sociology and director of the Surveillance Studies Research Center at KU's Institute for Policy & Social Research, said the grant will help researchers seek to better understand and address this particular facet of inequality.
Researchers estimate 27 percent of Americans lack broadband internet access at home, and those rates are much higher among the economically poor and vulnerable populations, including young and old, people of color, immigrants, the indigenous population, non-English speakers and people with disabilities, Staples said.
Nine out of 10 college graduates have broadband access at home compared with only 34 percent of those who have not completed high school. Adults younger than 50 are more likely than older adults to have internet access at home. Those living in households earning at least $50,000 per year are far more likely to have home broadband than those at lower income levels, and those living in rural areas are as much as 12 percent behind those who live in metropolitan areas and suburbs. Along racial and ethnic lines, 78 percent of Americans with European heritage have access to high-speed internet, while that number is 65 percent among African-Americans, and only 58 percent of Latinos do, Staples said.
"The social dimensions of broadband access tends to reflect familiar patterns of socioeconomic inequality," Staples said.
This digital-access divide creates vulnerabilities for those who rely on public libraries and public computers for their internet access. The project will examine the effects of potential lack of social and cultural capital of computer literature and internet proficiency.
Marginalized users could be more susceptible targets of online scams, identity theft, differential and predatory pricing, discriminatory profiling and what is known as "social sorting," which involves assigning worth and treating people different, Staples said.
"The project is a great example of cross-disciplinary collaboration and engaged research. We have developed real partnerships with two local libraries' system who see the value in our project," he said. "We are bringing our skills and expertise together to expand academic research but also provide a practical solution to address the privacy and security risks of some of our most vulnerable citizens living in northeast Kansas. We hope, however, that our technical solution could be adopted in other settings across the country."