Privacy

Big Brother Is Watching You Eat

The federal government wants to use your technology to change what you eat. In the meantime, they're surreptitiously posting your data online.

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Just how far is the federal government willing to go to push Americans to make subjectively "healthy" food choices? Chillingly far, if the most recent meeting of the federal government's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) is any indicator.

The DGAC is made up of fifteen academics, culled mainly from the fields of nutrition, public health, and medicine. The role of the DGAC, which has met every five years for more than two decades, is to come up with recommendations that can be used "to help people choose an overall healthy diet that works for them."

The DGAC plans to issue its latest set of recommendations by the end of 2015. These recommendations have teeth, as they'll "serve as the cornerstone for all Federal nutrition education and program activities" over the proceeding five years.

The DGAC guidelines are used by a host of federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Health (NIH), and Center for Disease Control. Many of these policies will have little or no impact on your life.

But make no mistake. The DGAC is actively dreaming up ways for the government to meddle in your diet.

A look through the transcript of last week's hearing reveals the word "policy" (or "policies") appears 42 times. The word "tax" appears three times. And the word "regulation" appears 13 times. The words "meat," "salt," "soda," "sugar," and "trans fats" came up countless times in the context of things you really should be eating less frequently.

One of the most nefarious things I've seen about the DGAC recommendations so far is the suggestion that the government involve itself in the lives of obese people by sending them regular text messages. (I've dubbed this this the DGAC's "Chubby Checkers" program.)

This texting—and the data collection necessary to facilitate it—could be an unprecedented intrusion of government into the daily lives of Americans. It flies in the face of food freedom.

The Washington Free Beacon's Elizabeth Harrington reported last week that NIH had spent nearly $3,000,000 in recent years to fund studies looking into the possibility of using text messages and web tools to treat obesity.

That sort of Big Government intrusion into your mobile phone might strike you as outrageous. But that's not even the half of it.

In the course of researching this column, I came across evidence that NIH—the federal agency that's part of Health and Human Services (HHS) and that posted the DGAC video online—is actively sharing information about the Internet service providers (ISPs) of its web visitors. That may violate the federal government's own privacy policies.

For example, the video of last Friday's DGAC hearing has a link to "extended stats" on the event. Clicking on that link brings a visitor to a page that lists the names of all the ISPs used by those who took part in the meeting.

The publicly available list of those who watched online includes news organizations like Fox News and Congressional Quarterly; food and beverage giants like Dannon, Coca-Cola, Red Bull, General Mills, Hershey, Dean Foods, ConAgra, Kellogg, Archer Daniels Midland, and Kraft Foods; and nonprofits like the Food Marketing Institute, PCRM, and about two-dozen colleges and universities.

The site also lists the number of computers at each location used to watch the proceedings. That's how I know, for example, that one computer at CQ and three at Fox News were used to watch the proceedings live online—as was one computer at the U.S. House of Representatives.

According to the NIH website data, faculty or staff at Yale, Texas A&M, Utah, Istanbul Tech., Tufts, Delaware, Cornell, Georgia, Cal Tech, Tennessee State, Texas Tech, USC, and at least a dozen other universities around the world also watched the proceedings online.

It appears HHS has been posting similar data for years. It also appears that posting this information online violates the federal government's own privacy policies.

The privacy policy posted at HHS's own website, for example, states that any information collected, including a visitor's ISP and the page or pages to which a visitor navigates, "is available only to web managers and other designated staff who require this information to perform their duties."

If the federal government was collecting and publicizing information about what library books Americans were checking out, there'd be one righteous ACLU lawsuit in the offing.

This sort of blanket disclosure is particularly chilling because it pertains to a public committee hearing—I mean "chilling" both in the creepy sense of the word and for its impact on public participation and speech—especially when viewed both in light of many recent NSA spying disclosures and of the DGAC's own proposal to use intrusive technology to involve the government more in the lives of Americans.

That government ineptitude—rather than covert machinations—might one day explain HHS's actions here is cold comfort. At a bare minimum, the agency has some explaining to do.

New York University Prof. Marion Nestle, a former DGAC committee member, wrote recently that the present DGAC proceedings "will be fun to watch."

That may be a stretch. But she can be sure those putting on the proceedings will probably enjoy watching her, too.