Government Urged To Establish Privacy Rules For Online Grocers

The federal government should establish standards to protect the privacy of food stamp recipients who purchase groceries online, a coalition of digital rights groups says in a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

The letter comes the same day the Center for Digital Democracy released a report examining the marketing practices of online grocery and e-commerce companies that participate in a pilot program enabling Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program recipients to buy food online.

That study “finds that leading online grocery and e-commerce companies participating in the pilot ... are engaged in extensive data profiling, and deploying geolocation tracking, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and behavioral

science techniques to track and target consumers, promote unhealthy products, and trigger impulsive purchases,” the Berkeley Media Studies Group, Center for Digital Democracy, Color of Change and UnidosUS write. “Most of these operations are largely invisible,” the groups add. “CDD’s analysis of the companies’ privacy policies reveals that they fail to protect consumers from these data collection, targeting, and predatory marketing practices.”



The organizations are calling for several specific privacy rules, including one that would require online grocers that participate in the pilot program “to adhere to a granular set of safeguards for limiting not only what kinds of data can be collected from individuals, but also how that information can be used and shared with third parties.”

Another proposed rule would “forbid the use of techniques that take advantage of consumers’ psychological vulnerabilities, or employ manipulative practices designed to foster impulsive behavior.”

The advocacy groups say the matter is “especially urgent,” given the COVID-19 crisis.

“More and more SNAP participants are now having to order their groceries online to reduce their risk of exposure to the coronavirus, which, as you know, is infecting people of color at particularly high levels,” the letter states. “Yet, unless the USDA establishes meaningful and effective safeguards for the online ordering program, individuals and their families who need SNAP could face increased threats to their privacy and health.”

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