Tuesday, August 11, 2009

U.S. Web-Tracking Plan Stirs Privacy Fears

So often you'll hear something like this happen and if it's a
republican doing it the republicans are all for it (patriot act) and
the democrats are all against it. Or if it's a democrat doing it, all
the dems are in favor and all the republicans are against it. What we
should ask, regardless of party, is if it's right or wrong. I don't
want to give more power to the federal gov just because 'my guy' is in
office. What happens when my guy leaves, and some guy I don't like now
wields this new power....


The Obama administration is proposing to scale back a long-standing
ban on tracking how people use government Internet sites with
"cookies" and other technologies, raising alarms among privacy groups.

A two-week public comment period ended Monday on a proposal by the
White House Office of Management and Budget to end a ban on federal
Internet sites using such technologies and replace it with other
privacy safeguards. The current prohibition, in place since 2000, can
be waived if an agency head cites a "compelling need."

Supporters of a change say social networking and similar services,
which often take advantage of the tracking technologies, have
transformed how people communicate over the Internet, and Obama's
aides say those services can make government more transparent and
increase public involvement.

Some privacy groups say the proposal amounts to a "massive" and
unexplained shift in government policy. In a statement Monday,
American Civil Liberties Union spokesman Michael Macleod-Ball said the
move could "allow the mass collection of personal information of every
user of a federal government website."

Even groups that support updating the policy question whether the
administration is seeking changes at the request of private companies,
such as online search giant Google, as the industry's economic clout
and influence in Washington have grown rapidly.

Two prominent technology policy advocacy groups, the Electronic
Privacy Information Center and Electronic Frontier Foundation, cited
the terms of a Feb. 19 contract with Google, in which a unnamed
federal agency explicitly carved out an exemption from the ban so that
the agency could use Google's YouTube video player.
Contract Terms

The terms of the contract, negotiated through the General Services
Administration, "expressly waives those rules or guidelines as they
may apply to Google." The contract was obtained by EPIC through a
Freedom of Information Act request.

"Our primary concern is that the GSA has failed to protect the privacy
rights of U.S. citizens," EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg said.
"The expectation is they should be complying with the government
regulations, not that the government should change its regulations to
accommodate these companies."

Cindy Cohn, legal director for Electronic Frontier Foundation, called
the contract "troubling."

"It appears that these companies are forcing the government to lower
the privacy protections that the government had promised the American
people," Cohn said. "The government should be requiring companies to
raise the level of privacy protection if they want government

The episode recalls a dispute in January when critics complained that
a redesigned White House Web site featured embedded Google YouTube
videos -- depicting events such as the president's weekly address --
that used tracking cookies. The White House and Google later reassured
users that they had stopped collecting data.

But the current ban on cookies, according to senior OMB officials,
applies only to federal agencies and not third parties. That means
that a visitor to http://www.whitehouse.gov, for example, isn't
tracked by the government, but information about a user who clicks on
a YouTube video on the site could be tracked by Google, according to a
source at the company with knowledge of the partnership with the Obama

Google spokeswoman Christine Chen directed broader questions to the
government, but said in a statement that the White House use of
YouTube "is just one example of how government and citizens
communicate more effectively online, and we are proud of having worked
closely with the White House to provide privacy protections for

GSA and White House officials would not answer questions, releasing
only a statement by OMB spokesman Kenneth Baer that said the
administration is committed to protecting users' privacy. "That is why
when we asked for public comment on a new cookie policy, we
specifically identified privacy considerations as a main area of
focus," Baer wrote.

In a May 28 letter responding to EPIC's public records request,
Zachariah I. Miller, a GSA presidential management fellow, said
"...GSA and the rest of the Government do take personal privacy
seriously and apply all existing privacy statutes and regulations in
this area."
Similar to Online Stores

Vivek Kundra, the government's chief information officer, and OMB
official Michael Fitzpatrick, wrote in a July 24 blog posting that the
policy review is intended to improve customer service by allowing
agencies to analyze how people use their sites and to remember
individual visitors' "data, settings or preferences." Such use is
similar to online stores' creation of personalized "shopping cart"
services that have won wide public acceptance.

The pair proposed that if the change is made, visitors be clearly
notified that tracking technologies are being used and allow them to
opt out without penalty. For technologies that track users over more
than a single Internet session, known as "persistent identifiers,"
there would be higher levels of privacy safeguards, they said.

EFF and another group, the Center for Democracy and Technology, have
said that the time has come to expand privacy safeguards to new
tracking technologies. At the same time, they say that the cookie ban
might be too broad, keeping the government from improving its services
for the public.

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