NEWS13 August 2009

Privacy pros and cons aired in White House cookie debate

Data analytics North America

US— White House proposals to lift a ban on the use of cookies on federal government websites have met with a mixed response, with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warning of a “sea change” in government privacy policy.

ACLU representatives say the organisation “strenuously” opposes the idea, which would allow the use of technologies to track visitors over single and multiple sessions for web analytics purposes, and to remember users’ data, settings and preferences.

Many of the comments submitted in response to the proposal acknowledge the benefits such a move would bring, particularly in terms of helping federal government departments ensure they are providing the right information to citizens in an accessible manner.

While noting concerns over privacy, Jules Polonetsky and Christopher Wolf of The Future of Privacy Forum said: “Using analytics tools to understand how users succeed or fail in accessing content and refining steps to ‘surface’ this content is a valuable public benefit of cookie use.”

But Christopher Calabrese, counsel for the ACLU Technology and Liberty Project, said: “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 the impact on privacy.”

Jeff Chester of the Centre for Digital Democracy also expressed concern at the limited nature of the debate, with only two weeks given to comment on the proposal.

“The government’s potential expansion of data collection and profiling on US citizens and residents requires a serious public debate,” said Chester. “While the [proposal] suggests there is ‘widespread public acceptance’ of cookies, it does a disservice by not acknowledging that many polls show that there is deep concern about the myriad of techniques used in behavioural profiling and targeting.”

Federal websites have been prohibited since June 2000 from using certain web-tracking technologies, primarily persistent cookies, because of privacy concerns.

“As with most technologies there is proper use and there is misuse,” said Larry Freed, CEO of online survey firm ForeSee Results. “Examples of misuse should not lead us to the conclusion to restrict the use of the technology, but rather set standards, policies and guidelines across the federal government websites that insure the proper use of the technologies.”

Lending its support for lifting the ban, Web Analytics Association president Alex Langshur said: “it is perfectly within the means of any organisation to unambiguously and comprehensively ensure that the right to privacy is fully protected while at the same time using industry standard measurement and evaluation technologies.”


1 Comment

15 years ago

Obviously government agencies get a lot of hacking and nut case threats. Also obviously the Secret Service and others want to track and trend who does so. To use these cookies to improved service is a sham. However I sincerely think that "any" citizen should be able to contact his or her government in seeking information without identifying themselves in any manner. As far as controls over use of cookies, let's get real here! One of the worst guardians of citizens rights in the past has been The Government. Wasn't long ago they were selling Social Security number information, and your income tax information. And then there was the downloading of citizens information by government employees into personal laptops, by employees supposedly to take home to work on! Then these were lost or stolen, along with millions of citizens personal ID information. No, I have a right to privacy without government over sigbt. Or at least I used to long ago.

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