Using Lived Experience to Study Security and Privacy Concerns Among US Immigrants

February 7, 2024

Members of GWUSEC in the lab

Every year, countless people move to new countries, with the United States accounting for about one-fifth of the world’s total migrants. Moving to a new country means people leave their “known environment” and interact with new entities, often sharing sensitive and personal information that inherently exposes them to various risks. In a recent study, a team of researchers from the GW Usable Security and Privacy Lab (GWUSEC) investigated the intertwined roles of information, security, privacy, and safety through the process of obtaining a visa and moving to the US.

Recently, a growing body of research has investigated security and privacy challenges in understudied or marginalized communities such as immigrants. The team looked at this related work to see what had already been found and identify gaps their study could fill. They will share their contributions to this line of research at the 45th IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy in May 2024 by presenting this paper, “Security, Privacy, and Data-sharing Trade-offs When Moving to the United States: Insights from a Qualitative Study.” 

The research team consists of eight researchers: Dr. Lucy Simko, a Research Scientist and Postdoctoral Scholar at GWUSEC; Dr. Yasemin Acar, a Research Assistant Professor in the Computer Science Department; Ph.D. student Collins Munyendo; alumna and current CS master’s student Rachel Gonzalez Rodriguez; recent alumni Lusia Ball Schnell and Cora Sula; and Harshini Sri Ramulu from Paderborn University, formerly a GW student. Of these individuals, seven of them have moved to the US from other countries themselves under various circumstances. Those lived experiences enabled them to focus on the nuances and intricacies of the moving process, which they may have otherwise overlooked.

“My first-hand experience and frustrations throughout the process of moving to the US not only motivated me to work on this project but also informed the study design and analysis of the results. I hope some of our recommendations will ultimately make the moving process easier for others,” said Munyendo.

The team devised interview questions to investigate the type and scope of information people are required to share before, during, and after the moving process, as well as any concerns with this throughout the process. Through 25 semi-structured interviews via Zoom with participants who had recently moved to the US from 17 different countries, they found a direct connection between bureaucracy, technology, and digital privacy and security risks, concerns and perceptions in the US visa process. 

“We went into this project thinking we knew a lot about immigration, but we learned so much more! It was definitely surprising,” Rodriguez stated.

The team learned that inherent tension exists between national security and personal security and privacy during the visa process due to the substantial acquisition of applicants’ personal information. They found sharing this information may also sometimes violate their cultural information-sharing norms; for example, those applying for spouse visas had to provide proof of their relationships through wedding photos or private conversations with their partner. These concerns are all exacerbated by online threats and vulnerabilities, specifically fraudulent online rent postings and scam calls, bureaucratic barriers to security and privacy, and technical security, privacy, and access challenges.

Though the visa process is inherently and intentionally invasive, their study demonstrates that there are ways for the US government and technologists to lessen feelings of unease, fear, or discomfort. The team argues for more guidance, transparency, and respect for participants’ privacy from embassies. Technologists, they argue, should re-evaluate the implications of their design decisions on specific populations as technology such as geo-filtering and multi-factor authentication negatively impact immigrants in the moving process.

This project was primarily conducted as part of the Summer Undergraduate Program in Engineering Research (SUPER). The idea to focus on immigration was conceived after Simko gave a guest lecture for GWUSEC as it builds upon her dissertation work on the relationship between change and vulnerability and security and privacy harms through four populations experiencing immense change. Simko says collaborating with the team on this project was a great introduction to research at GW.

“It was exciting to spend the summer working with these excellent GW undergraduate students, many of whom are now further along in their research careers. I’m humbled by their creativity, drive, and excitement about the research process and very much look forward to watching them present their work at IEEE S&P in May,” said Acar.