Report prompts agencies to rethink Web privacy

A recent report criticizing agencies for not posting the information they may collect about visitors to their World Wide Web sites is raising privacy concerns among Web site managers.

The Department of Health and Human Services put a Privacy Policy link on its home page the same day that the Center of Democracy and Technology released a report that found most agencies do not post privacy policies. CDT is an advocacy group that follows information technology issues in Washington, D.C.

"We will collect no personal information about you when you visit our Web site unless you choose to provide that information," HHS' privacy notice begins.

HHS informs visitors that the only information collected includes the visitor's Internet domain and Internet Protocol address, the type of browser and operating system used to access HHS' site and the date and time the visitor accessed the site.

HHS decided to post the link prominently partly in reaction to CDT's report, "Policy vs. Practice." The report found that of 46 executive branch agencies studied, 22 had no discernible policies posted, and eight agencies had policies that were difficult to find. About a third, or 16, agencies had what CDT considered to be easy-to-find privacy policies, usually links directly from the front pages of the agencies' Web sites.

HHS had been developing a policy, and the report simply gave the final push to post the policy sooner rather than later, said HHS spokesman Campbell Gardette.

CDT also highlighted the Department of Veterans Affairs and the CIA for not posting privacy notices or for having questionable privacy policies. "The VA Web site," the report says, "did not have a clearly marked privacy policy. The agency was advising visitors that it uses cookies to monitor traffic."

CDT said the CIA posts on its site that it has a "consent to monitoring" policy, which states that "government may monitor and audit the usage of this system."

The report states that because the CIA does not explain what kind of monitoring it is conducting or why, it is difficult to determine whether such monitoring is legal. "Even the CIA should not monitor visitors' access to publicly available information," the CDT report states. "At the very least, the agency should explain why monitoring and auditing is necessary and what kind of monitoring is being done."

"The sites that don't have [stated policies] are the ones that have never had a problem," said Ari Schwartz, a CDT policy analyst. "It shouldn't be a privacy emergency that causes these policies to be created."

Rich Kellett, director of the General Services Administration's Emerging Information Technologies Policies Division, said the number of agencies that did not have a privacy statement for their Web sites surprised him. "I, quite frankly, thought we had gotten past that point about whether or not to have one," he said.

The CIA's policy is in the works and should be posted soon, said Michael Stepp, intranet/Internet communications manager at the CIA.

"I have drafted privacy and security notices...and they are currently in our general counsel's office, so hopefully in the next few weeks we'll have the full set of documents up there," Stepp said. "I visited a lot of federal Web sites and private sites to look at their privacy policies; I'm not reinventing the wheel."

In addition to the report, CDT sent a letter to Peter Swire, appointed last month as the first chief counselor for privacy at the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The letter urges OMB to inform agencies that they must post clearly labeled privacy policies, reviewed by OMB, on their home pages within 30 days or else risk cuts in their information technology budgets.

OMB could not be reached for comment. Schwartz said he has been told Swire's office is taking CDT's request under advisement.

Since the report came out, Schwartz said federal agencies with and without policies have contacted him. Schwartz said many of the agencies without policies thanked him for giving them leverage in their internal fight to develop and post policies.

The Agriculture Department appreciated the report's focus on privacy issues, but it had an issue with its placement on the "poorly labeled" list. The USDA's Web site uses Java to allow visitors to see what is in each section of the site by putting their cursor over one of the six link buttons on the front page. Privacy/Security Notice is one of the items shown when the cursor is rolled over the "About USDA" button.

"It is a method that we use to get more information on that opening page than your can squeeze if you put everything up there," said Victor Powell, the USDA's Webmaster. "We thought it was a use of technology that would work very well." But if OMB issues a regulation that agencies must have a direct link on home pages, "we'll click our heels and obey," he said.

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