Using food stamps online – great in a pandemic but it comes with a price

As we watch the world around us change dramatically, it’s been great to see how (and how quickly) technology can help make things easier for people. It has been literally a life saver for many who have been able to work, learn, stay healthy and shop online rather than risk pandemic infection. But with quick technology changes, I’m always a little worried about unintended consequences.

The Center for Democracy just released a report (Does buying groceries online put SNAP participants at risk?) that reminded me of consequences. The good news they report is that prior to the pandemic, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) participants could not use their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards (the contemporary version of what used to be known as “food stamps”) to make online purchases. But now they can. But that comes at a cost…

People who need government food assistance should have access to the same kinds of online services that others use to feed their families while staying safe. The SNAP online purchasing program could be critical to achieving that goal.

However, as this report shows, the program could also expose participants to increased data collection and surveillance, a flood of intrusive and manipulative online marketing techniques, and pervasive promotion of unhealthy foods. While all U.S. consumers who use online ordering services face many of these risks, SNAP participants are likely to be disproportionately harmed.

In the following pages, we present the results of our research on the eight retail companies selected to participate in the SNAP online purchasing pilot. Our study reveals that these companies deploy a range of data-driven targeting and e-commerce practices that are at the center of today’s digital marketplace. The entire e-commerce system has evolved in a largely unregulated environment, without federal or state policies that provide adequate protections for consumers. Neither the USDA nor the companies in the pilot program offer sufficient protections to SNAP participants.

I had a client who worked in the world of SNAP, so this caught my eye. I’m not going to delve deeply because it’s slightly off topic but as we work to improving lives with technology, it’s good to get a reminder of the doors we open without realizing it.

If you have the time, the report is interesting. What I always think is interesting is that the debate isn’t always “should” we use big data to effect change but “who” can use it and how. We frown on businesses using it to sell potato chips and cola but using it to promote apples is seen diffierently.

For a very different perspective on data privacy, look at the clash between US and EU privacy laws. The Washington Post reports…

 The European Union’s top court on Thursday threw a large portion of transatlantic digital commerce into disarray, ruling that data of E.U. residents is not sufficiently protected from government surveillance when it is transferred to the United States.

The ruling was likely to increase transatlantic tensions at a moment when President Trump has already been threatening tariffs and retaliation against the European Union for what he says are unfair business practices. It was a victory for privacy advocates who said that E.U. citizens are not as protected when their information is transferred to U.S. servers as when that information stays inside Europe.

It’s not an apples to apples comparison, but it is an ideologically different take on privacy.

This entry was posted in Digital Divide, Healthcare, Policy by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (, hosts a radio show on MN music (, supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota ( and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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