Does your loyalty card know if you are pregnant? Privacy Experts Sound the Alarm: NPR


The steps you take to protect your privacy should reflect your level of risk, says an expert.

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Granger Wootz/Getty Images/Tetra Images RF

The steps you take to protect your privacy should reflect your level of risk, says an expert.

Granger Wootz/Getty Images/Tetra Images RF

Last month, a viral Twitter thread sparked fear and debate about how consumer data can be stored and shared by big-box stores, and how that could take on a new dimension in a post-Roe world.

It all started when user Nicole said that on July 16, she received a package from infant formula company Enfamil after buying a pregnancy test at Walgreens with her rewards card.

The tweet included an image of a box that contained various containers of infant formula, a pacifier, and a box with the phrase “Here’s our first gift for the most important person in the world.”

Nicole wrote that a doctor had asked them to take the pregnancy test, and they raised the issue of someone receiving such packages in states where abortion was now illegal.

Nicole did not respond to NPR’s request for comment. But several others responded to the original tweet with their own experiences of targeted marketing after shopping at other major chain stores. Some shared stories of receiving these types of packages following miscarriages.

In an emailed statement to NPR, a Walgreens representative said, “Our customer privacy is important to Walgreens. We have not provided individual customer purchase information to Enfamil.”

So could an infant formula company get a customer’s data and send them a package? The history of this type of marketing is long and the legality is complicated.

How it works

One of the most infamous examples includes a case from 2012, when a teenage girl’s dad found out his daughter was pregnant thanks to Target ads let’s cut before she told him herself.

Alicia Sloan Lederman, associate professor of law at the University of Iowa School of Law, cites this as a prime example of how valuable your shopping history and spending habits are to a store, regardless of your search algorithms or your online deliveries.

“Companies like Walgreens, Target, really any organization, can accumulate profiles of the types of things consumers in particular categories are likely to buy,” she said. “So it could be that pregnant people are buying lots of X, Y, and Z products, so the company can infer that, okay, well, because you bought X, Y, and Z, you’re probably like those other categories of people in a particular class, like pregnant women.And therefore, we’re going to assume that you are and send you the targeted article.

In a statement to NPR, Reckitt, which produces the Enfamil formula, said he did not have access to Walgreens customer information. However, he said consumers can voluntarily choose to receive marketing materials, and that can happen “through a third party who says the information will be shared.”

Lederman said the fine print in many in-store rewards programs allows companies to collect and share consumer data and make inferences about targeted marketing elements.

In most cases, signing up for a rewards program means you consent to your data being collected and used in this way, Lederman said, but she argued that another problem is consumer expectations. to have the ability to navigate this type of legal. language in its own right, a concern that privacy and data protection specialists have expressed for years.

“In my view, the question is less, ‘Have Target or Walgreens, or any company, been categorical about what their policies are?’ and more, “Is it reasonable to expect any individual to adopt and read these policies, especially in a world where, I don’t know, I kind of rely on these companies to get the things that I need in basic life?”

Now that some states can bring criminal charges against those seeking information about abortions, or the abortions themselves, Lederman said that data could become valuable to more than stores trying to track your spending habits.

“Information may flow across contexts, including to law enforcement officials, including doctors or medical providers, or in some states, private individuals who may have an interest in prosecuting suspected criminals. ‘got an abortion,’ she said.

How to protect yourself

Lederman argues that the most effective solutions to these problems lie in broader legislation and stricter regulations regarding data collection and storage.

“It’s a systemic problem. And the ways to plug it are things like statutes that make it harder to share information with law enforcement for certain purposes, without proper warrants, without proper procedural protections, or about companies that data minimization only collects less data or destroys it after a certain period.”

Yet there are plenty of ways to protect yourself and your data, no matter where you live or where you shop.

“The first thing I always say when people ask me this question is don’t panic,” said Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, a nonprofit that aims to protect basic human rights. digital age.

“I think a lot of the things that give us trouble when we think about digital security is that we tend to get really overwhelmed very quickly and just give up and say, ‘There are so many ways my privacy is invaded”.

Greer said the steps you take should reflect your level of risk, and there’s no one-size-fits-all way to further protect your data. But there are some things you can do as starting points. Their first recommendation is an “enforcement diet”.

“Just be careful how many apps you have on your phone,” they said. “It’s highly likely that most apps on your phone collect and store some type of data about you. And that data could be used in ways you haven’t even begun to imagine.”

Greer also stressed the importance of having strong protections for accessing your phone and using a password manager to protect your accounts.

“The biggest mistake many, many people still make is using the same password for all their accounts or using Face ID on their phone, which if you’re worried about the app of law, there is actually legal precedent to suggest that a law enforcement officer can force you to unlock your phone by holding it in front of your face,” they said. “They can’t force you to give them your password.”

Their final suggestion is to look for resources that don’t store data, including search engines like DuckDuckGo and end-to-end encrypted email services like Signal.

“It’s one that I think is just very relevant to a lot of people, because as reproductive health care becomes more and more criminalized, people are looking for information. People are scared. They want to know what their rights are and what type of health care they can access and where. And all of this involves searching the internet.”

Ultimately, Greer said the most important privacy effort a consumer can make is to call their congressman and let them know that legislation that protects digital privacy is an important issue.

“We need collective regulatory action from Congress to make it illegal for companies to collect so much data about us in the first place,” they said. “It’s the only thing that’s really going to protect people in the long run.”


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