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.
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.
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.
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.
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.