Without Safeguards, SNAP Online Food Purchases Could Threaten Participants’ Privacy, Undermine their Health


SNAP Online Food Purchasing Program
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Before COVID-19, families with SNAP federal food aid could not use their electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards to buy groceries online. They had to go to into stores and risk infection.

The good news is 37 states now have a SNAP online food purchasing programs.

The bad news is that those online purchasing programs could “expose [SNAP] participants to increased data collection and surveillance, a flood of intrusive and manipulative online marketing techniques, and pervasive promotion of unhealthy foods,” according to the Center for Digital Democracy.

The Center’s new report explains how federal and state policies fail to protect consumers against unhealthy food marketing, threatening the health of SNAP families. The report also recommends regulatory safeguards, industry commitments, and accountability mechanisms.

“Because shopping online is likely to become the ‘new normal’ for everyone in the coming years, we argue for strong, comprehensive government policies to ensure privacy, security, fairness and equity for all U.S. consumers in the Big Data era,” the report states.

Unregulated Big Data System

A growing body of academic research has documented how food and retail digital marketers use technology and predictive analytics to unfairly target unhealthy products to communities of color, low-income groups, and other vulnerable populations.

For example, food and beverage companies use big data, like location history, and marketing tactics to target Latino kids and kids of color with junk food—foods that have high levels of sugars, calories, and fat.

Marketers use sophisticated data collection systems to analyze consumer purchases, location, preferences, and behaviors to group and classify populations. Then, they offer or exclude certain groups from different products, services, or prices, some of which are healthy or unhealthy. Mobile and geolocation data, for example, are a key strategy for geo-targeting or geo-excluding particular customers.

“Online grocery shopping exposes consumers to a massive retail and e-commerce surveillance system of unprecedented scope and granularity,” the Center for Digital Democracy report states.

This isn’t just commercial data collection, but also governmental data collection for the delivery of social services.

“These individuals can be targeted and/or excluded according to biased automated eligibility systems, subjected to surveillance by social service agencies and law-enforcement, and effectively relegated to the “digital poorhouse,” the report states.

SNAP Online Food Purchasing Program Unlike many other countries, the U.S. lacks comprehensive laws to regulate the digital marketplace and offer meaningful safeguards to protect consumer privacy.

It’s no surprise that many of these individuals have developed a deep distrust of both commercial and governmental data systems. After all, numerous reports have illustrated how the targeted marketing practices of food and beverage companies contribute to health inequities.

Although SNAP is supposed to promote health and prevent hunger, the latest report illustrates how the practices of retailers and grocery stores threatens both health and privacy.

Keep in mind, these aren’t underground online retailers. The authors of this report analyzed the practices of the eight retailers and grocery stores selected by the USDA to participate in the SNAP online purchasing pilot: Amazon, Walmart, Safeway, Hy-Vee, FreshDirect, Shoprite, Dash’s Market, and Wright’s Market.

8 Unchecked Strategies, Tactics, and Techniques of Online Retailers

The Center for Digital Democracy’s report describes how eight USDA-approved retailers and grocery chains are using personal information to unfairly target some consumers:

  1. “Retailers and online e-commerce companies access unlimited amounts of information on consumers—including highly sensitive data— and use it to identify and target individuals wherever they go, online and off.”
  2. “Companies draw from an expanding arsenal of advertising technology (“adtech”) software, services, and tools to segment both individuals and groups into highly granular targeting categories, and to engage with them not only on retailers’ sites, but also across multiple channels.”
  3. “With more than 240 million people in the U.S. using smartphones, marketers routinely deploy geolocation technologies, which tap into consumers’ location data and follow their movements and activities.”
  4. “Retailers offer a wide variety of online incentive and rewards programs—including loyalty cards, digital coupons, cash-back dividends, redeemable points, discounts, contests, and sweepstakes—that require consumers to surrender detailed records of their grocery shopping in order to save money.”
  5. “Brands are playing a greater role in ensuring that their products are highly visible on the digital shelf in order to increase their portion of online sales as well as overall “basket size.” With their bigger ad budgets, companies marketing processed foods can eclipse those promoting healthier, less expensive products.”
  6. “Through the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the latest insights from behavioral economics, companies have created a host of techniques for maximizing their ability to influence consumer behaviors, including fostering impulsive purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages and foods that are high in salts, fats, and sugars.”
  7. “Retailers have instituted a number of online strategies for encouraging and enabling what they call “frictionless” shopping.”
  8. “Through real-time measurement, grocery chains, retailers, and online shopping services can determine how a marketing campaign or e-commerce practice affected consumer purchasing behavior, enabling companies to maximize and fine tune their techniques with unprecedented precision.”

Moreover, privacy policies fail to protect individuals.

Incomplete Privacy Policies

Since the earliest days of the commercialized Internet, online consumers have been exposed to practices that could threaten their privacy and undermine their health.

The basic framework for online privacy protection relies on the notice and choice model. This is where a condition of accessing a merchant’s website is that a consumer must accept the privacy policy and the company’s Terms of Service.

However, there is no room for negotiation, sticking consumers with a “take-it-or-leave-it” proposition.

This is particularly problematic for Latinos trying to feed their families without having to increase their risks of becoming ill with or spreading COVID-19.

Additionally, the privacy policies are often incomplete, confusing, and difficult to decipher.

For example, privacy policies do not meet USDA’s requirements to describe “exactly” how the companies “will or will not use information about individual customers, and with whom the data is and is not shared.”

Online consumers are not provided with adequate choices by merchants regarding how their data can be used for marketing.

Geolocation data is not listed among sensitive data and remains largely unregulated, unlike health and financial data.

Most privacy policies fail to clarify how consumer’s personal information, behavior, and movements are tracked and shared across websites and through “third party” trackers.

“The significant imbalance of power between online consumers and digital corporations has further undermined consumer safeguards, resulting in manipulation and a lack of transparency and accountability,” the Center for Digital Democracy report states.

Now, SNAP participants, some of America’s most vulnerable families, are forced to agree to commercial privacy policies that enable extensive data collection, tracking, targeting, and manipulation. This includes Latinos, who represent 18.5% of the U.S. population and 16.7% of SNAP participants.

Developing a Framework of Principles, Best Practices, and Policies for the Program

The Center for Digital Democracy authors developed a framework to ensure fair and transparent data collection and use regarding SNAP online food purchasing programs; curtail manipulative and unfair marketing and promotion practices; provide consumers with meaningful privacy rights; minimize disparate impacts of Big Data e-commerce practices; and foster healthy eating.

The six building blocks for the framework are:

  • A granular set of privacy safeguards should be put in place for limiting not only what kinds of data can be collected from individuals and their families, but also how that information can be used.179 A SNAP participant who orders groceries online from one merchant, for example, should not have to fear that the information she shared will be used by another company to target her with predatory marketing for a payday loan or other similar product.
  • Retailers, e-commerce platforms, and food companies should not be allowed to use techniques that take advantage of consumers’ psychological vulnerabilities, or employ manipulative practices designed to foster impulsive behavior.
  • The privacy policies of e-commerce and retail companies participating in the program must be improved substantially, including transparency and accountability around algorithmic decision-making. Rather than allowing each merchant to develop its own privacy policy, the USDA should require a uniform format, mandate clarity of language, and articulate specific privacy and consumer risks. Privacy policies should be accessible in Spanish and other languages commonly used by a store’s shoppers.
  • Companies should be required to conduct ongoing impact assessments of high-risk data practices with regard to the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages, especially as they may result in disproportionate harm to already disadvantaged populations, such as people of color, low-income communities, the elderly, and disabled. Acceptable impact thresholds should be set and mitigation strategies required.
  • The USDA should follow the suggestions from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which include encouraging participating retailers to prioritize healthier products in their promotion efforts.
  • The USDA should facilitate the participation of smaller and independent retailers, in order to help create a more level playing field as they compete with the large platforms offered by Amazon, Walmart and the major grocery chains. To enable greater access to healthier foods, online ordering for SNAP participants should also be extended to include farmers markets and other local produce suppliers.

“In the midst of a health and economic crisis that could plunge even greater numbers of Americans into poverty, advocates are redoubling their efforts to restore, protect, and strengthen the nation’s critical food assistance safety net to ensure that benefits are available to anyone who needs them,” the report states.

You can help by sharing this report with local and state officials and public health and social justice leaders.

Stay up to date with health equity efforts in the aftermath of COVID-19!


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