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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