Sep 26, 2014 · 4 minutes

The New York Times published a report on Thursday about devices used by subprime auto lenders to track someone's location, issue warnings about an upcoming payment deadline, or remotely disable the vehicle when their driver is even just a few days late in paying those bills.

That remote disabling can have serious implications for drivers. The Times cites a number of people who say their vehicles were disabled while they were driving. One driver said that the lender used the device's GPS-tracking abilities to locate her at a woman's shelter after she left her abusive husband. Another was trying to take her son to the hospital because he was suffering from an asthma attack and a high fever when she realized her car wouldn't start.

The situations created by those devices are yet another method of criminalizing the act of being poor. These people aren't criminals who need to have their locations tracked all the time, nor are they animals who need to be conditioned to pay a bill whenever they hear these devices' incessant beeping emanating from their vehicle's dashboard.

These situations are often created by predatory lenders offering credit to the poor -- with conditions that help ensure that these customers stay poor -- and that the shutdown devices are merely a tool they use to make sure these people never forget who's really in control. But this is about more than exploiting people who are in no position to fight back: it's also about how tech often seeks to help the wealthy while ignoring those with lower incomes.

In many cases, tech isn't made for poor people. Just take the recent obsession with health-monitoring tools: Are these applications really made for people who have to stretch out every paycheck or government-provided assistance just to make sure they have something, anything, to eat? When your options are not eating and getting something from McDonald's or the frozen section of the grocery store, sodium levels and carbohydrates don't seem like such a big deal.

Or consider one of the most-anticipated features of the new iPhones -- the ability to pay with a simple thumb press instead of having to dig through a wallet in search of a card to swipe. That is only a problem for upper-or middle-class people who worry more about having to exert a little effort than about whether or not the amount of cash in their bank accounts will be able to cover everything the cashier has already rung up. Hell, many poor people aren't even able to open bank accounts these days; to them, being able to swipe a debit card would be a privilege.

Then there's the fact that, the website meant to provide poor people with an insurance plan through the Affordable Care Act, didn't work when it was launched. That might not have been a problem for people who get their insurance directly from their employer, but it surely affected people who haven't dared to visit a doctor in years because they can't afford the outrageous fees associated with even the most minor of ailments. Tech failed them yet again.

This issue isn't limited to health-monitoring applications or payments solutions, of course. It's hard to get excited about smart homes when you can't afford to make rent, or about wrist-worn computers when you can't even make the payments on the smartphone you probably shouldn't have bought in the first place. So much of what people get excited about in tech means nothing to the people trying to make ends meet instead of worrying about the latest-and-greatest products.

In the meantime, companies will continue to produce new technologies that make it easier for people comfortable with their homes to connect appliances to the Internet, remove the need to swipe a card at a grocery store, or make cars that drive themselves because it's safer than letting everyone onto the road. The rich get new toys while the poor get devices that can make the vehicles they need to get to one of their jobs or to reach the emergency room all but useless.

Now, that isn't to say that some people aren't at least attempting to help the poor with technology. Some, like the Heat Seek project meant to help ensure that apartments stay warm in New York this winter, have even built some amount of good-heartedness into their business models. Others seek to help address some of the problems poor people face, including police brutality and the nigh-incomprehensible system of public transit, with their apps and services. But, for the most part, a lot of tech released in the US isn't made with the poor in mind.

Society is great at punishing people for circumstances that are often outside their control. I don't want to get into discussions about the rate at which poor people are incarcerated for drug charges while rich kids get to claim they suffer from "affluenza," or how the rich have accrued untold wealth while the poor continue to get poorer, or about the right-wing crazies who believe that anyone collecting food stamps should be treated like criminals in exchange for their food.

But I would like to start a discussion about what tech can do to alleviate some of those concerns instead of perpetuating the problem. Surely there must be a way for technology companies to use their vast resources to create products and services that actually help fight poverty -- or at the very least, we can do better than helping predatory lenders put the lives of poor people at risk.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]