Annals of Creepy Data Surveillance

In a story in today’s Guardian about the slow progress the Red Cross has made in distributing Hurricane Fiona support payments to Islanders is a rather creepy revelation that the organization is using surveillance capitalism to verify citizen’s identities:

Lawlor said the Red Cross relies on open source data services to confirm the identity of applicants.

These services include what is known as a ‘soft credit check’ – a service used often by financial institutions to match against existing consumer data.

Lawlor said these checks have no impact on credit scores of individuals.

For example, people who do a lot of online shopping, they have a footprint, right? Your data — whether it be in your mobile device or your computer at home — that does inevitably leave a footprint,” Lawlor said.

But Lawlor said there was an unusually high number of Island residents whose data profile simply required additional verification.

Some elderly residents, whose homes or cars are paid off, do not regularly use credit, he said. Other residents simply may not frequently shop online, or may simply not use internet tools frequently.

Their data might be a little bit more stale, for lack of a better word, than someone who is more of a frequent user of credit,” Lawlor said.

First, this seems a misuse of the term “open source data services” — there’s no such thing (I hope!) as open data that establishes personal identity like this: the data that’s described sounds like proprietary commercial data scraped surreptitiously and aggregated by creepy warehousers.

Second, it is not okay for government to distribute public money to citizens via a third-party non-profit organization that uses surveillance data to verify identity, a system that inequitably disadvantages many people who need the funds most — people without a digital footprint or a credit score.


Thelma's picture
Thelma on October 14, 2022 - 17:42 Permalink

“Open source data service” gave me the creeps, too. What a mess this has been. I’ll be curious to hear how much the Red Cross were paid.

Ron Walsh's picture
Ron Walsh on October 14, 2022 - 22:04 Permalink

I hope you will share this with the Premier and others in Government, your MLA, and PBB and the Green Party. Truly atrocious handling in a time of need. Makes me reconsider future donations to the Red Cross

Ton Zijlstra 's picture
Ton Zijlstra on October 15, 2022 - 11:08 Permalink

Surely there's a way of verifying against a government database? Even without sharing such data, by querying and getting an answer, not the data, back. The pretend lack of a gov register of people in NA and UK has weird consequences, like outsourcing it to creepy and unaccountable corporate datasets.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on October 15, 2022 - 13:12 Permalink

Yes, the conceit that Canadian governments adopt of having a firewall, real or fictional, between government data sources (for example, the prohibition against using the Social Insurance Number for a limited number of situations, vs. the European tradition of a “person number” being used for almost everything) is ultimately a disservice. I believe the rationale originally was to avoid disentitlement that might result from connecting disparate sources: for example, your school records being used to deny entitlement to social benefits later in life. 

Other than the Social Insurance Number, which is only used for work and taxation-related domains, there is no national identifier in Canada; I’ve been involved enough in the business of trying to uniquely identify people—for voting purposes, for example—and its challenges (including people with the same name and date of birth), that I know firsthand how helpful this could be. 

Ann Thurlow's picture
Ann Thurlow on October 15, 2022 - 12:53 Permalink

From my somewhat limited understanding of privacy laws, it’s against the law to use personal information, except for the purpose for which it was collected. This applies to private companies as well as government. Back when we still cared about our privacy, banks got in trouble for misusing personal information. I don’t think it ever occurs to anyone that we still have privacy rights.

Rachael's picture
Rachael on October 16, 2022 - 07:31 Permalink

I wish I understood more about how these companies work. I have a good credit score and an “online footprint” (I purchase items online several times a month) and yet have still been selected to go prove my identity in person. How does that make any sense?