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Third-Party Cookie Use on WhiteHouse.gov Questioned

Back when he was campaigning for president, Barack Obama 's skillful use of Web 2.0 technologies such as Facebook and YouTube enabled him to get his message out to new audiences of voters in an unprecedented fashion. But using the same technologies in his new role as president is already proving to be more controversial.

Not even 10 days into Obama's presidency , some privacy advocates are expressing concern about a White House decision permitting the use of persistent Internet cookies in YouTube video files embedded on the redesigned WhiteHouse.gov Web site . Letting third-party cookies be placed on the site is a deviation from established executive-branch policy that leaves site visitors open to being tracked and profiled without their knowledge, the privacy advocates claim.

In a letter mailed Tuesday to White House Counsel Gregory Craig (download PDF) , the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) questioned a waiver that was issued by Craig's office concerning the use of cookies on the WhiteHouse.gov site. The waiver, which is now part of the site's modified privacy policy allows the use of persistent cookies by "some third-party providers to help maintain the integrity of video statistics."

Cookies are small pieces of code that are installed on browsers by Web sites, in order to help the sites recognize the computers of users they next time they visit. Data such as the IP addresses of users, the Web sites they're coming from and how long they stayed on a particular site can be stored by cookies. Online advertisers and Web site operators often use such information to build behavioral profiles for delivering targeted advertising and content to users.

According to the WhiteHouse.gov privacy policy, the persistent cookies will be planted only on the browsers of visitors who specifically click on video links. Users who want to view a video without having the cookies placed in their browsers can download a high-definition MP4 version of the file via a direct-download link, the policy says.

Typically, a YouTube cookie is installed whenever a user simply visits a page containing an embedded video. But last week, following some initial criticism of the waiver from privacy groups and bloggers, the White House implemented a technical fix that requires users to click on videos before cookies are placed in their browsers. (Another change was made on Sunday, to remove YouTube's name from the section of the privacy policy detailing the waiver.)

In the letter that the EFF sent to Craig, Cindy Cohn , the Washington-based group's legal director, welcomed the White House's quick response in making the fix but said that the waiver continues to pose privacy issues.

Cohn said visitors to federal Web sites should be able to view official information without fear of being tracked either by the government or by third parties such as YouTube, which is owned by Google Inc. That expectation is consistent with the government's own stance on the use of cookies, she noted, pointing to a memorandum issued in June 2000 by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

That memo discussed the "particular privacy concerns" raised by the use of tracking cookies on government Web sites and concluded that cookies shouldn't be used on such sites "because of the unique laws and traditions about government access to citizens' personal information."

"The concern is that our access to government information shouldn't be part of the data that Google gets just because the government decided to use a technology from YouTube," Cohn said in an interview today. She added that the issue has become even more important now because a growing number of government agencies and legislators have begun to embed YouTube videos on their sites, perhaps without realizing the potential privacy implications.

"Your browsing through government information shouldn't be a data collection opportunity for private companies," Cohn said. "You don't want to be looking for tax information on a government Web site and then have Gmail pitching tax software. That's creepy."

Cohn's letter reminded Craig of Obama's promise to run a transparent government and called on the White House to release information on the reasoning behind its decision to issue the cookie waiver. She also asked the Obama administration to work with YouTube to try to end the retention of cookie data collected from any video file embedded on a government Web site.

In addition, Cohn asked the White House to add a link to the WhiteHouse.gov privacy policy near each video, along with specific information about the third parties that might be collecting data, and to look at the idea of streaming the videos directly from its own servers instead of letting YouTube host them.

Jeffrey Chester , executive director of the Washington-based Center for Digital Democracy, also said that the decision to allow the use of persistent cookies in embedded videos is worrisome.

Tools such as YouTube's Insight software could be used to do in-depth analysis of the data collected from WhiteHouse.gov visitors, Chester said. And it isn't just third parties that could potentially use the tracking data, according to Chester.

Such information could "give the Obama White House a tremendous amount of insight into public behaviors," he said. "Do we really want the government to sanction the use of a consumer profiling application that links our commercial behaviors with our civic behavior?"

How the White House responds to the concerns bears watching, Chester added. "This will be a litmus test on how to balance the interest in using new-media tools with privacy concerns," he said.

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