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August 12, 2009

Tracking Terrorists on the Internet: Bad
Tracking American Citizens on the Internet: Good

Fishism alert. The White House is reversing a nine-year-old policy forbidding the use of tracking cookies on those who visit federal websites.

Even the ACLU is alarmed.

Since 2000, it has been the policy of the federal government not to use such technology. But the OMB is now seeking to change that policy and is considering the use of cookies for tracking web visitors across multiple sessions and storing their unique preferences and surfing habits. Though this is a major shift in policy, the announcement of this program consists of only a single page from the federal register that contains almost no detail.

“This is a sea change in government privacy policy,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, Acting Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Without explaining this reversal of policy, the OMB is seeking to allow the mass collection of personal information of every user of a federal government website. Until the OMB answers the multitude of questions surrounding this policy shift, we will continue to raise our strenuous objections.”

The use of cookies allows a website to differentiate between users and build a database of each user’s viewing habits and the information they share with the site. Since web surfers frequently share information like their name or email address (if they’ve signed up for a service) or search request terms, the use of cookies frequently allows a user’s identity and web surfing habits to be linked. In addition, websites can allow third parties, such as advertisers, to also place cookies on a user’s computer.

“Americans rely on the information from the federal government to research politics, medical issues and legal requirements. The OMB is now asking to retain the personal and identifiable information we leave behind,” said Christopher Calabrese, Counsel for the ACLU Technology and Liberty Project. “No American should have to sacrifice privacy or risk surveillance in order to access free government information. No policy change should be adopted without wide ranging debate including information on the restrictions and uses of cookies as well as impact on privacy.”


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