A New Underclass: The People Who Big Data Leaves Behind

As more and more business decisions are being made by looking at the data collected from our lives, what happens to the people who are generating no data at all?

A New Underclass: The People Who Big Data Leaves Behind
[Image: Data via Shutterstock]

Many people are becoming concerned about the myriad ways their lives are monitored, tracked, and reduced to mere data points for some shady government agency or corporation to crunch with an algorithm.


But those who are less digitally connected may actually have the complete opposite problem, according to a recent essay in Stanford Law Review: They are not being tracked enough.

“Big data poses risks also to those persons who are not swallowed up by it–whose information is not regularly harvested, farmed, or mined,” writes Jonas Lerman, a legal adviser at the U.S. Department of State.

Once upon a time, people’s growing trails of digital data exhaust were used mostly used to serve them more personalized advertisements and coupons. Who cares if that didn’t apply to you?

These days, however, “big data” analysis is starting to influence decision of higher import that will determine how we live and the opportunities we receive. Using digital data to make predictions, retailers are deciding where to open new stores and set prices, businesses are designing new products, politicians are setting their voter turnout strategy, and analysts are figuring out how diseases spread and terrorists move. Even the White House launched a $200 million initiative to help policy-making agencies “access, organize, and glean discoveries” from big data.

To Lerman, these forces are primed to create a new form of voicelessness for those who live on “big data’s margins”–one that will significantly magnify existing inequalities of geography, economic, and social class and will bias data sets to favor others.

“It could restructure societies so that the only people who matter–quite literally the only ones who count–are those who regularly contribute to the right data flows.”


As an example, Lerman considers two hypothetical individuals:

  1. A 30-year-old Manhattan resident in a white collar job. She uses Facebook, Google, Netflix, and Amazon. She has debit cards, credit cards, loyalty cards, a public transit card, and an EZ pass that pays tolls electronically on her car dashboard. The GPS in her smartphone and car help her get around.
  2. A part-time worker in America’s poorest city–Camden, New Jersey–two hours south of Manhattan. He is paid in cash under the table, has no cell phone, cable TV or computer. He pays his bus fare in cash and has no car. He infrequently uses the Internet at the library.

Lerman points out that many of today’s big data tools are all calibrated for the “electronically harvestable” Manhattanite. “A world shaped by big data will take into account her habits and preferences; it will look like her world. But big data currently overlooks our Camden subject almost entirely.” The more big data reorders governments and the marketplace, the more the people like the Camden man are excluded from opportunities and even from democratic participation, he believes.

There are possible solutions. One, he says, would be to make sure policymakers–when designing new public safety programs, for example–actively recognize that they need to supplement a big data approach with considerations for those with a lighter footprint. Eventually, the federal government could even pass a new civil rights law akin to the 2008 law that banned discrimination based on genetic information.

“Ensuring that the big data revolution is a just revolution, one whose benefits are broadly and equitably shared, may also require, paradoxically, a right not to be forgotten—a right against exclusion,” he says.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.