Government rethinks ban on tracking Web site visitors

OMB wants to reverse policies that bar persistent cookies on government Web sites

Many Web sites for news, shopping and socializing use cookies to track visitors’ interests and habits, but the federal government has long banned their use on agency sites. However, the Office of Management and Budget is reconsidering that policy and is seeking input from the public.

Cookies store information that Web sites can use to present information tailored to users’ interests. The small cookie files reside on users' computers, and the Web site reads them when users return. The site can then customize the information those users see, depending on information in the cookies.

Federal officials are considering various levels of visitor tracking, according to an OMB announcement released July 27. Under the proposed changes, agencies would be required to post a prominent statement saying that their Web sites use tracking tools. They would also need to give visitors the option of not being tracked.

Changing the government’s policy to allow the use of cookies would be a major shift, said Mark McCreary, a partner at law firm Fox Rothschild and an expert on Internet law.

“There is a huge underlying policy issue here of why…the federal government [needs] to track its citizens for the purpose of using its Web sites,” McCreary said. The cookie policies were established to protect people’s privacy, and other governments have taken the same approach, he added.

For example, in 2008, the European Union’s data privacy regulators said IP addresses should be considered personal information. “So one organization has spoken out and said, 'We consider this private information, and we are going to regulate it,'” McCreary said.

It is not clear whether the federal government should use the technology in the same manner as private companies, he added.

“It is really important to step back and say, ‘Why does the federal government need to do this? What is the point?’” McCreary said.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Tue, Mar 19, 2013 john ashford

Tracking cookies should be made strictly illegal , if we marched into the offices of the companies involved and demanded information about where they shop and what they do on the web they would refuse, it is about time we refused to comply with them, I truly hope that the Government administrators are not taking back handers to look the other way.

Wed, Aug 12, 2009 Clarence Tennis Indiana

Why is it that the desire to enhance your customers' experience viewed as an invasion of "privacy?" Once again the ignorant paranoids of the world are whipping up conspiracy theories and lies not to protect their "privacy" but to conceal their identities. I believe that this difference is not being well reported, or defined. There is a difference between privacy and anonymity, which is not something anyone has a "right" to. When I walk into a retail store I expect that I am being recorded on the store's surveillance tape, and that at any time, the owner of the store or law enforcement could deduce my identity. Or not even being taped. Maybe I go to the same gas station, and now my identity has been exposed because I'm there every other day! When we go to a web site while sitting in our homes, isn't that virtually the same as walking out the door of our house and going into town to the store? On the way there our neighbors and other folks see us. The store clerks see us. The cameras record us. Our credit card purchases time stamp us. Just because you're sitting in your house while shopping does not give you the right to anonymity!

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