Massachusetts gets privacy deadline

Massachusetts has given state agencies a June 8 deadline to clarify privacy policies on state Web sites.

In Executive Order No. 412, acting Gov. Jane Swift directs all state agencies to outline their Web site's policies regarding the use of cookies, visitor tracking, and the protection and sharing of citizens' personal data. The move to clarify and, in some cases, draft privacy policies results from a statewide initiative to improve Web services. But it also comes as a result of citizen complaints that some state agencies use cookies to track users in ways private companies must disclose — a policy outlined in Federal Trade Commission guidelines.

The deadline was generally welcomed by agency spokespeople, saying it would help build confidence in online government.

But Robert Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal, says that the move can be seen as a pre-emptive strike against cries of hypocrisy from Massachusetts businesses, which were served with a similar mandate a year ago.

Companies, according to Smith, could argue that they are being ordered to clarify privacy policies from a government whose own agencies have muddled policies, if any policy at all.

But Dominick Ianno, a spokesman for the state's Department of Administration and Finance, dismisses those claims. "This is...a proactive policy that we deemed to implement as we enter into a new era of e-government," Ianno said.

"We have 160 different Web sites, and with our initiative on e-government, we are trying to bring all of them together, to conform them in terms of a privacy policy," Ianno said.

Smith ranks Massachusetts in the top 10 in overall state privacy, and thinks such a mandate from the governor is for the greater good, adding that "it wouldn't surprise me if other states followed suit."

E-government is a priority for Massachusetts, which has earmarked $93 million during the next six years for its statewide portal (www.mass.gov).

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