Some agencies already track website visitors

Half a dozen federal agencies are paying a private company to track and analyze the behavior of visitors to their websites, taking advantage of technologies that could become more common on government sites if a White House proposal is approved.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense are among the agencies that already have contracts with ComScore, a Reston, Va.-based firm that analyzes Web traffic, to profile Web audiences.

ADVERTISEMENT
Now the Obama administration is evaluating comments regarding its proposal to allow federal sites to use “cookies,” which collect data about how people use websites and which links they click.

The administration is considering the reversal of a nine-year-old policy banning the use of cookies on federal sites. The cookie ban does not apply to sites maintained by members of Congress.

Privacy advocates say allowing the government to collect personal data about visitors to public sites violates citizens’ privacy rights.

But White House officials say having a better understanding of how citizens use websites will make them more user-friendly and will allow for more participation in government activities. Commercial sites such as Google, Amazon and Facebook use cookies to store preferences and log-in information.

“Everyone is talking about making websites easier to interact with and more citizen-centric,” said Dan Lackner, senior vice president of ComScore. “If you can’t measure who uses the site, you can’t manage it.”

Six agencies currently use ComScore’s data under contracts that total about $1 million, he said. For example, the FTC uses ComScore’s analysis tools to keep track of whether the movie and gaming industry is following federal rules by not advertising mature movies and video games on sites geared toward children.

ComScore started working with the agencies on this front over the past five years, when the Bush administration was in power.

The NIH uses the company’s services to find out how people find the information on its site and how it compares to commercial sites such as WebMD. The U.S. Army tracks whether more than $3 billion in recruitment advertisements are reaching the right audiences.

ComScore has also contacted the Democratic National Convention and candidates for next year’s midterm elections to sell its Web-tracking services.

The company does not give the government personally identifiable information about citizens such as IP addresses, which can indicate the exact location of a Web user. Agencies only receive general data about the demographics of website visitors, he said.

Third parties that add features to government sites, including YouTube video players, photo slideshows and Twitter feeds, are allowed to use cookies and other tracking technologies as long as they do not share the data they collect about citizens with the government.

But allowing the government to use cookies to directly collect data would violate citizens' privacy rights, some advocacy groups say.

Christopher Calabrese, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Technology and Liberty Project, said citizens rely on federal websites to research medical issues, politics and legal requirements.

He said the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) “is now asking to retain the personal and identifiable information we leave behind. ... No American should have to sacrifice privacy or risk surveillance in order to access free government information.”

ADVERTISEMENT
The Electronic Freedom Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center have also expressed concern about the government’s ability to collect personal information.

Michael Fitzpatrick, associate administrator in the OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and federal Chief Technology Officer Vivek Kundra  said in a blog post this week that the government is taking a “cautious approach” and will take feedback into account before making any policy changes.

The OMB has received roughly 100 comments about the proposal since asking for feedback July 27; the comment period ended Monday.

Not all privacy advocates are opposed to the government’s use of tracking technologies. Allowing agencies to use cookies to understand how unique visitors navigate websites and search for information would largely eliminate the reliance on third-party firms for such analysis, said Jules Polonetsky, founder of the Future of Privacy Forum.

In comments filed with the OMB, the group suggested requiring user consent before logging data about them and deleting cookies after a certain period of time.

Polonetsky said using cookies to understand how citizens access content on federal sites would help agencies improve their sites, which is a “valuable public benefit.”