Cookie monster rears its head

OMB's policy prohibits persistent Web cookies, but there are exceptions

OMB 2003 Guidance for Implementing the Privacy Provisions of the E-Government Act of 2002

Related Links

So what's the big deal about Web cookies? It's just a data file locked on to your computer, right? Privacy advocates and the Office of Management and Budget don't think they are so innocent, and some people say cookies are the gateway to greater privacy concerns.

The oft-overlooked cookie practice has been in headlines recently because the Associated Press recently caught the National Security Agency using cookies on its Web site. NSA has since stopped using cookies on its Web site, adhering to OMB policy. But the issue raised concerns about how agencies use cookies.

Since the Clinton administration, the government has had an explicit policy that bans persistent cookies — a text file that a Web site can place on a user's computer to track a user's Internet travels.

Unlike session cookies, which disappear when a user closes the browser, persistent cookies can remain in computer files indefinitely. OMB's policy allows agencies to use session cookies.

"Cookies make Internet browsing convenient," said Jason Johns, a senior Web developer for Kansas-based NIC. Cookies can save users' passwords for online e-mail accounts and online shopping.

Cookies store users' unique identifying information on the computer to save their preferences, Johns said. For security, session cookies can ensure that the same logged-in user is completing an online form, such as a license renewal form. Keeping track of users' purchases using cookies can allow a Web site to cater to shoppers based on their past purchases.

"The spirit of the e-government initiative is providing the best service to the citizens," said Brent Hieggelke, vice president of corporate marketing at WebTrends in Portland, Ore. But with restrictive policies regarding cookies, he said, the government is attempting to become more efficient with "one hand tied behind its back."

Hieggelke said cookies allow the departments to review their site's service to their constituents by the volume of Web site traffic and visitors' responses to the site. Persistent cookies can determine if the Web site's visitors frequent the site or are first-time guests. If they visit frequently, Web designers can learn what content visitors seek and if they can find it.

Hieggelke said cookies are a performance measurement, which the e-government initiative emphasizes.

The original 2000 policy was written after the Office of National Drug Control Policy was found placing cookies on the computers of visitors to the office's drug-education Web sites. The Bush administration adopted the OMB policy in 2003 when Director Joshua Bolten signed the E-Government Act of 2002 privacy implementation policy, which prohibits government agencies from using persistent cookies on their sites, unless a top agency official approves them.

"The administration is committed to protecting the privacy of the American people," the 2003 OMB policy memo states.

According to the 2003 OMB policy instructions, the Bush administration requires agencies to review how they handle information collected from a Web site and ensure the security of personal information submitted by visitors. OMB also requires each agency Web site to have a privacy policy statement, clearly labeled and written in understandable language.

The White House's Web site states: "We will collect no personal information about you when you visit our Web site unless you choose to provide that information to us."

The E-Government Act of 2002 also mandates that agencies must complete a privacy impact assessment report, reviewing the effects of data collection. Agencies must complete the report before buying or using data-collecting technology. According to the legislation, agencies must explain what information they will collect and why, how they intend to use the information and with whom they will share the information. The report should also detail the security of the information and how someone can refuse to share information.

Privacy advocates often do not oppose cookies, and they acknowledge their usefulness. However, other privacy concerns remain.

"Following the events of Sept. 11, [2001], there is a common false belief that in order for America to be safe, the public must give up its privacy," said Latanya Sweeney in June 2005 before the Homeland Security Department's Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee.

"Our work suggests that ubiquitous technologies...can be deployed while maintaining privacy," said Sweeney, an associate professor and the director of the Data Privacy Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University.

Lance Hoffman, a computer science professor at George Washington University, agreed. "Mention privacy in a research proposal and it is too often the kiss of death." Most agencies are unwilling to devote the time necessary to arrive at a solution preserving liberty and also building accountability, he said. "The old question 'Who watches the watchers?' is important," said Hoffman, a member of DHS' Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee.

Cookie rules

The Office of Management and Budget's 2003 guidance for implementing the privacy provisions of the E-Government Act of 2002 prohibits the use of persistent cookies in most cases, but allows the use of session cookies.

Here is the OMB policy on Web tracking.

  • Agencies cannot use persistent cookies or any other means, such as Web beacons, to track visitors' activity.
  • Agency executives can approve the use of persistent tracking technology if they have a compelling need. In those cases, the agency must include a notice in its online privacy policy stating the nature of the information collected, the purpose and use for the information, whether and to whom the information will be disclosed, and the privacy safeguards applied to the information collected.
  • If an agency executive approves the use of persistent tracking technologies, the agency must file a report on privacy practices.

Among the permitted tools, OMB's policy allows the use of the following:

  • Technology that is used to facilitate a visitor's activity within a single session and does not persist over time, such as session cookies.

Source: Office of Management and Budget

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.