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White House website responds to privacy concerns about Google; additional steps needed

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Fri, Jan 23, 2009 at 12:08 pm

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Twelve hours after blogger Chris Soghoian revealed privacy concerns about Google’s involvement with the official White House website, there is some good news.

Although the steps taken by the White House webmasters don’t go far enough, they are steps in the right direction.  Here’s what happened:

Federal regulations
specifically say that “agencies are prohibited from using persistent cookies or any other means (e.g., web beacons) to track visitors’ activity” unless there is a “compelling need.”

Cookies
are bits of code placed on a browser when a website is visted. They are used for authenticating, session tracking (state maintenance), and maintaining specific information about users.
 
According to the White House website’s privacy policy, The White House Counsel has issued a waiver to Google, allowing it to set persistent cookies on users’ computers when they view video files from You Tube that are embedded in the White House website.

On Thursday the site went far beyond the stated privacy policy. Simply going to the page where the video was embedded put a persistent cookie on the viewer’s computer allowing Google to track the user on the government site.   After Soghoian’s post, the site was modified so that Google’s cookies are now set only when a viewer clicks on the video. It is also possible to download the video with getting a cookie.

The White House apparently took notice of privacy concerns and acted. That’s a good thing, but in fact there is no “compelling reason” to allow Google to gather information about visitors to the White House website and to monitor WhiteHouse.gov visitors’ video choices, thus amassing more data for Google’s business purposes.   In addition, the fact that Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt is a major Obama  supporter creates the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The White House needs  to rescind the waiver for You Tube immediately and halt this intrusive practice.  There are a myriad of ways to display video on a website without setting persistent cookies.

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This post was written by:

John M. Simpson

- who has written 349 posts on Inside Google.

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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