Web Privacy “Bug” Bites White House Web Site

At the same time that lawmakers have been getting more serious about
privacy and the World Wide Web Consortium
has been unveiling its P3P standard for protecting users of Web browsers,
the White House, and its Office of National Drug Control
Policy
, have been setting “cookies” to track users on its Freevibe Web site.


When people visit the site, aimed at young people likely to be using and
seeking information about drugs, a small file called a “cookie,” is placed
on the visitor’s hard drive, which allows that person’s activity on the
site — and possibly across the Web — to be tracked.


“Cookies” have long been controversial, but what makes this even more of a
hot-button issue is the fact that they are being placed by advertising
giant DoubleClick Inc. The company
has been the subject of inquiries by several state attorneys general, as
well as by the Federal Trade Commission,
because of its privacy practices.


When alerted to the situation, the White House disavowed any previous
knowledge of the “cookies,” saying the practice had been instituted by
contractors for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).


“We will take all steps necessary to halt these practices now,” said White
House press secretary Joe Lockhart, in a statement. “Specifically, ONDCP
will halt the use of ‘cookies’ on its behalf. ONDCP has directed its
contractors to destroy any data held by contractors and gathered through
the use of ‘cookies’.”


Although Lockhart made the statement on Wednesday, the software code to set
the “cookies” was still in place on Thursday morning.


Also on Wednesday, the White House released a statement praising the World
Wide Web Consortium’s P3P privacy standard. The P3P standard is aimed at
enhancing Web browsers in such a way that consumers would better be able to
control the release of their personal information, and be better aware of
the privacy policies of various Web sites that they visit. Privacy
advocates, though, criticize P3P as being too confusing, lacking any means
of enforcement, and contend it may hinder other efforts to protect consumer
privacy.


The White House reaction to the “cookies” on its Web site betrays a
sensitivity to the issue that illustrates the mood in Washington with
regard to Internet privacy issues. Politicians are eager to stake out the
moral high ground on this issue, even though the “cookies” on the FreeVibe
site are likely harmless.


“It was probably benign, what they were doing,” said Richard Smith, an
Internet security consultant that has found a number of technical “bugs”
that raised privacy concerns. “But the potential is there for doing a lot
more.”


Smith’s concern, which is shared by some privacy advocates, is that the
collection of all of this data about Internet users’ movements could be
used to violate consumers’ civil rights. DoubleClick, especially, comes
under fire because its vast reach on the Internet means it has huge
stockpiles of data.


“The concern is that law enforcement or lawyers will get interested in
their databases,” said Smith. This kind of “interest,” like wiretapping,
treads the line between the interest in law enforcement and the interest in
protecting individual privacy.

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