OMB evaluates federal Web tracking policies

Policies impede user experience, officials say

Should federal Web sites allow the use of persistent cookies, small programs that can track a vistor's activities on the site? The cookies are common on commercial sites, but government policy forbids them on official government sites.

Now the Office of Management and Budget is considering options for revising the rules, and it wants the public to provide comments on the issue, according to a Federal Register notice published July 27.

The rules against using Web tracking tools were enacted to protect people's privacy, according to the notice.  However, persistent cookies improve the user's experience on a site. They are the technology that makes it possible for a Web site to remember each visitor's preferences and information. They also are necessary for sophisticated analysis tools, which provide managers with useful information about how visitors use the site.

Vivek Kundra, the federal chief information officer, said several policies and statutes need to be re-evaluated as the government adopts emerging technologies such as Web 2.0 and cloud computing. Speaking at the Open Government and Innovations Conference on July 21, Kundra said cookie policies and the Paperwork Reduction Act both may need to be modified.

Web tracking by federal agencies has been prohibited since 2000 unless an agency head approves the use of tracking technologies due to a compelling need, according to the Federal Register notice.

“While the benefits of using Web tracking technologies are clear, OMB is acutely aware of, and sensitive to, the privacy questions raised by the use of such technologies,” the notice states.

Under a framework being considered by OMB, any federal agency using Web tracking technologies on a government Web site would be required to adhere to all existing laws and policies governing the collection, use, retention and safeguarding of any data gathered from users, according to the notice.

An agency would also have to post a conspicuous notice on the Web site stating that Web tracking is being used and provide a way for users to opt out of being tracked.

The public may submit comments about the policy at Regulations.gov or at WhiteHouse.gov by clicking on the link “Federal Web sites Cookie Policy Forum.” Comments may also be e-mailed to oira_submission@omb.eop.gov.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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