Sunday, February 22, 2009

The White House is Watching You

A White House decision permitted the use of persistent Internet cookies in YouTube video files embedded on the redesigned 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.

There are two types of cookies: persistent cookies and session cookies. Session cookies are temporary and can be easily deleted. Another type of cookie are persistent cookies.

"Persistent cookies can exist for many years in a user's browser cache, repeatedly identifying the user to the issuing web site across many visits. . . Usability aside, however, persistent cookies are specifically designed to uniquely identify users on return visits to web sites, often over the course of years. In terms of anonymity, this is bad. Advertisers have found innovative ways to exploit cookies to track users as they visit web sites that contain their ads or other content. The larger the advertising network, the greater the risk (p. 73)," states Greg Conti, security researcher and Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) questioned a waiver that was issued by White House counsel concerning the use of cookies on the 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."

Privacy advocates 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, according to a memorandum issued in June 2000 by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Google and the new administration are intertwined. With no experience in government, Google product manager Katie Jacobs Stanton will be the new President’s “director of citizen participation.” Google has been actively involved in the Obama White House, starting with Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s endorsement of Obama during the campaign and Google’s role in powering the Obama Weekly Video Address. Google Inc. donated $701,099 to the Obama campaign (Cf.

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Digital Democracy, is concerned. He 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 conduct in-depth analysis of the data collected from 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.

"Google is not just a benign corporate entity. It has a variety of special interests," said Chester, who has sparred with Google over data-privacy issues. "They're in a great position to push their agenda through with the support of the president and the Democrats in Congress."