White House Restricts 'Cookie' Use on Gov't Sites

FRAMINGHAM (06/23/2000) - Now that the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) is stopping the use of so-called "Web bugs" to track the Internet browsing habits of visitors to its antidrug Web site, privacy advocates want to know what's being done to ensure that people's privacy is protected on all government Web sites.

The Clinton administration is already taking action: In a memorandum sent Thursday to the heads of all federal executive departments and agencies, Jacob J. Lew, director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB), announced restrictions on the use of Web bugs and other Internet cookies on their Web sites.

"Under this new federal policy, cookies should not be used at federal Web sites or by contractors when operating Web sites on behalf of agencies" unless certain conditions are met, Lew wrote. Web sites would have to demonstrate a compelling need to gather data, ensure that they have appropriate and publicly disclosed privacy safeguards for handling the information they want to collect and get the personal approval of the head of their agency.

Lew also noted that all federal Web sites must comply with the standards in the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 with respect to the collection of personal information at sites aimed at children.

In addition, he stressed that each agency is "required by law and policy to establish clear privacy policies for its Web activities and to comply with those policies." Contractors operating sites for federal agencies also must comply with the policies, he added.

Lew's directives came as privacy advocates began clamoring for Congress to investigate how the government handles online privacy. "The question is, what is the policy going to be across the federal government," said Mark Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

In a letter sent to U.S. Reps. Billy Tauzin, a Republican from Louisiana, and Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, yesterday, EPIC joined with Junkbusters Corp., a New Jersey-based privacy group, to ask for hearings into privacy issues on Web sites run by the government.

Ken Johnson, a spokesman in Tauzin's office, today said no decision has been made on whether hearings will be held. But he added that the matter is being discussed.

The controversy erupted on Wednesday when it was learned that information was being collected about Internet users who visited the drug control office's Freevibe.com site . Despite assuring users in its online privacy policy that "no information...will be sold or distributed to any other organization," the ONDCP allowed a New York advertising firm that runs its banner advertising campaign to place the Web bugs -- which act like Internet cookies -- on Freevibe.com to track movements on and off the site.

Such tracking would violate the federal Privacy Act of 1974, Rotenberg and other critics claimed. In yesterday's letter, EPIC and Junkbusters asked for an investigation into what happened and asked Congress to find out if other government Web sites are also collecting personal information about site visitors.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, the White House said the ONDCP would "take all steps necessary to halt these practices" immediately. The statement said the drug control office never "requested or received any personally identifiable information" about visitors to Freevibe.com, but it added that an order had been issued "to destroy any data held by contractors and gathered through the use of cookies.''

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