August 10, 2009
Changes Would Pose Serious Threat To
Americans’ Personal Information, Says ACLU
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (202) 675-2312;
WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union submitted comments
today to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
opposing its recent proposal to reverse current federal policy and allow the
use of web tracking technologies, like cookies, on federal government
Cookies can be used to track an Internet
user’s every click and are often linked across multiple websites; they
frequently identify particular people.
Since 2000, it has been the policy of the federal government not to use such
technology. But the OMB is now seeking to change that policy and is
sessions and storing their unique preferences and surfing habits.
Though this is a major shift in policy, the
announcement of this program consists of only a single page from the federal
register that contains almost no detail.
“This is a sea change in government privacy
policy,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, Acting Director of the ACLU
Washington Legislative Office.
“Without explaining this reversal of policy,
the OMB is seeking to allow the mass collection of personal information
of every user of a federal government website. Until the OMB answers the
multitude of questions surrounding this policy shift, we will continue
to raise our strenuous objections.”
differentiate between users and build a database of each user’s viewing
habits and the information they share with the site.
Since web surfers frequently share information
like their name or email address (if they’ve signed up for a service) or
and web surfing habits to be linked.
In addition, websites can allow third parties,
such as advertisers, to also place cookies on a user’s computer.
“Americans rely on the information from the
federal government to research politics, medical issues and legal
requirements. The OMB is now asking to retain the personal and
identifiable information we leave behind,” said Christopher Calabrese,
Counsel for the ACLU Technology and Liberty Project.
“No American should have to sacrifice
privacy or risk surveillance in order to access free government
information. No policy change should be adopted without wide ranging
debate including information on the restrictions and uses of cookies as
well as impact on privacy.”
U.S. Web-Tracking Plan Stirs Privacy Fears
by Spencer S. Hsu and
Washington Post Staff Writers
August 11, 2009
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
"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 (EPIC)
and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF),
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.
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 contracts."
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
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 administration.
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
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
"...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
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
At the same time, they say that the cookie ban
might be too broad, keeping the government from improving its services for