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Is New York Going To Spy On Your Food Purchases?
They Already Have The Tech
Today we come to a small conundrum courtesy of The Gothamist, a non-profit news outlet supported by New York Public Radio (WNYC), which in April reported on New York City Mayor Eric Adam’s proposal to track food consumption by household.
The Adams administration has announced a plan to begin tracking the carbon footprint created by household food consumption as well as a new target for New York City agencies to reduce their food-based emissions by 33% by the year 2023.
If we take the Gothamist reporter at face value, Mayor Adams is planning a Chinese-level of surveillance and monitoring of New York City residents.
To be sure, it is amply documented that on April 17, 2023, the Mayor’s Office held a press event announcing the city’s commitment to target “food-based” sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
Per the transcript of the event:
With Mayor Adams' leadership, New York City is reaffirming its commitment to reducing consumption-based emissions of greenhouse gases through our food, including innovative actions, policies, and initiatives.
However, the term “household” does not appear in the transcript.
Yet in that same event Mayor Adams talks about having “a conversation” about food and climate change(emphasis mine).
This is a significant moment and we're going to look back on what we're doing here in New York and what we're doing in London and how this impacts the way we have been thinking. And it also is going to be an uncomfortable moment for many. It is easy to talk about emissions that are coming from vehicles and how it impacts our carbon footprint. It is easy to talk about the emissions that's coming from buildings and how it impacts our environment, but we now have to talk about beef. And I don't know if people are really ready for this conversation. And we can't have a level of hypocrisy where we want to ensure that we do local laws to address the emissions that's come from fossil fuel, but not willing to have a real conversation on what food is doing to us.
And I recall during my campaign for mayor when we first started engaging in the behavioral issues that's attached to unhealthy food, there was a lot of pushback. There was a lot of people who did not want to look at the science. And now more and more we're discovering how food that is nutritionally void has a major impact on the health of a person's mental state. And we know the story, what it has done for us physically, and that is why we're here in the hospital, talking about the role that food plays on our physical wellbeing. But now we are at a new level and this conversation is a very significant one.
At a minimum, one can reasonably infer that Mayor Adams wants New York City to pass laws regarding what foods may be consumed.
New York City will begin tracking the carbon footprint of household food consumption and putting caps on how much red meat can be served in public institutions as part of a sweeping initiative to achieve a 33% reduction in carbon emissions from food by 2030.
Mayor Eric Adams and representatives from the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy and Mayor’s Office of Climate & Environmental Justice announced the new programs last month at a Brooklyn culinary center run by NYC Health + Hospitals, the city’s public healthcare system, just before Earth Day.
At the event, the Mayor’s Office of Climate & Environmental Justice shared a new chart to be included in the city’s annual greenhouse gas inventory that publicly tracks the carbon footprint created by household food consumption, the Gothamist reported.
The chart, which is included in the “New York City Household Consumption-Based Emissions Inventory” report dated February, 2023, is this:
EcoDataLabs is, without a doubt, developing data on per-household levels of consumption for a variety of food categories.
Here’s where this story gets interesting.
Local New York news outlet 9News chose to issue a “fact check” of the piece in The Defender, claiming the story was false:
State and local governments are enacting policies designed to fight against climate change, including New York City.
A May 16 article claiming America’s largest city is tracking residents’ food purchases and “imposing caps on red meat” went viral on social media. Some people have referred to this as “food fascism” and have suggested the city’s government is tracking individual credit and debit card purchases to create a “social credit system” in which it can decide what individual people can eat.
Specifically, 9News is referring to a tweet that was made on May 17:
9News asserts the claim that NYC will be tracking purchases by household and placing caps on how much meat may be sold in restaurants as false.
No, New York City is neither tracking household food purchases nor limiting individual consumption of red meat.
But is that really the case?
While the Defender headline might arguably be hyperbolic, it is documented fact that EcoDataLab is reporting on New Yorker’s food consumption patterns per household. They have been preparing a report on per-household emissions of so-called “greenhouse gases” for the city for the past several years.
Mayor Adams himself mentioned “having a conversation about food” in the same breath as mentioning “doing local laws” regarding fossil fuels. Mayor Adams specifically stated “now we have to talk about beef.”
Is the Defender’s connecting of these dots that outlandish? Especially when another NYC official, Commissioner Rohit Aggarwala, Department of Environmental Protection, spoke of incorporating a variety of consumption patterns into the city’s greenhouse gas inventory reports in that same event:
Just to build on what the mayor said, since 2007, New York City has every year produced a boundary based, a citywide carbon emissions inventory that calculates the carbon emissions from fossil fuels combusted within the city's boundaries, the trucks and cars on our roads, buildings inside our roads or buildings on our roads and the energy, the electricity generated and shipped to New York City. But until now, it has never included the carbon footprint of the things that we bring in from outside, the food we eat, the services that we import, the consumer goods, the clothing we wear, things like that.
How does the Mayor propose to have a “conversation about food” without having data to track food purchases on a per household basis? None of the articles say.
Moreover, financial services firm American Express has been partnering with climate change advocacy group C40 for over a year to build out the relevant data collection mechanisms.
C40 Cities is thrilled to announce a new partnership with American Express to support the development of consumption-based emissions inventories for London and New York City.
While this does not explicitly state that per-person or per-household purchases will be tracked, neither does C40 offer any assurance that such purchases will not be tracked. Given the size and stature of American Express as a financial services firm, we have to at least consider the possibility that any system they design might very well incorporate gathering per-person and per-household data; we certainly are not able, on the data at hand, to exclude that possibility.
The Defender also pointed out that Aggarwala was involved in starting up Google’s “smart city” subsidiary Sidewalk Labs.
At a minimum, New York City has assembled the infrastructure with the potential to track food purchases by individual household if desired, and Mayor Adams certainly appears to have the desire..
We should, however, note that EcoDataLab’s current reporting methodology does not draw on culled individual purchase data, but on presumably anonymous surveys applied against a computer modeling algorithm:
An inventory of consumption emissions is not a direct measurement of an individual resident's consumption or behavior. Instead, EcoDataLab uses a model (a series of complex calculations) to estimate consumption and emissions attributable to the lifestyles of residents of a city, using a combination of real-world consumption or emissions data where available, along with predictions based upon household characteristics, as well as regional and national averages.
This model is based upon an approach first developed by the CoolClimate Network
at the University of California, Berkeley, and published extensively in multiple
We must also note that methodologies can and will change
Moreover, while the technological infrastructure may be in place to track food purchases per household in New York City, accessing the purchase data from credit and debit card purchases is no small intrusion into personal privacy, and arguably a violation of one or more data privacy laws, particularly the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.
Within Gramm-Leach-Bliley are requirements for financial institutions, including providers of debit and credit cards and related merchant services, to safeguard “non-public personal information”, or NPI.
Financial institutions are required to take steps to protect the privacy of consumers’ finances under a federal law called the Financial Modernization Act of 1999, also known as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. The FTC is one of the federal agencies that enforces provisions of Gramm-Leach Bliley, and the law covers not only banks, but also securities firms, and insurance companies, and companies providing many other types of financial products and services.
Most importantly, the ability to share this information is supposed to be fairly limited.
If you receive NPI from a nonaffiliated financial institution, your ability to reuse and redisclose that information is limited. The limits depend on how the information is disclosed to you. It does not matter whether or not you're a financial institution.
Substantially, disclosure of NPI is limited to what is necessary to conduct the ordinary course of business. Relaying purchase data along with personal identification to establish the relevant “household” to EcoDataLab or the Amex/C40 partnership would almost certainly be a violation of this requirement.
Whether New York City or New York State could pass legislation to authorize the sharing of that data within Gramm-Leach-Bliley is a legal question I will not attempt to answer here, other than to note that such legal license for the data collection very likely would be required.
Regardless of what laws would be necessary to circumvent established privacy laws, it takes no great leap of imagination to contemplate the possibility of either the New York City Council or the New York State Legislature passing the necessary laws (whether such laws could withstand Constitutional scrutiny is another matter).
Thus, even though New York City presumably is not currently tracking per-household food purchases, the initiatives announced by Mayor Adams appear to establish the necessary foundation for such tracking in the future, with only the requisite enabling legislation currently missing. Mayor Adams and Commissioner Aggarwala arguably have already voiced an intent to seek such enabling legislation, or something very similar to it.
Indeed, much like the wasteful and unnecessary FedNow payments service, New York City’s initiatives with EcoDataLabs and the Amex/C40 partnership demonstrate how utterly unnecessary a “digital dollar” is for those wanting to monitor and micromanage American life. Bit by bit, byte by byte, the digital and surveillance infrastructures continue to be erected that would fulfill all the social policy objectives of a programmatic “digital dollar”—and all done out in the open, right under the noses of the American public.
The FedNow service is proof positive that the Federal Reserve—and, by extension, the US government—does not need to “weaponize” the dollar via a CBDC. With FedNow, it is already weaponizing the means by which people spend their dollars in furtherance of their own lives, their own liberty, and in pursuit of their own happiness.
New York City may not have “weaponized” food purchases in a similar fashion—yet.
What should concern everyone is just how little additional effort would be needed for Mayor Adams to do exactly that.
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For brevity, I am declining to discuss here the scientific merits and demerits of climate change. For this article the point is that Mayor Adams and others want to connect food consumption to climate change.
Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. Pub. L. 106-102, 113 Stat 1338 (1999) Government Printing Office, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/STATUTE-113/pdf/STATUTE-113-Pg1338.pdf
Federal Trade Commission. Financial Privacy. 3 Sept. 2018, https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/topics/protecting-consumer-privacy-security/financial-privacy.
Federal Trade Commission. How To Comply with the Privacy of Consumer Financial Information Rule of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/how-comply-privacy-consumer-financial-information-rule-gramm-leach-bliley-act.