By Shane Harris
April 18, 2001Dozens of federal agencies are still not complying with a Clinton administration directive that bans the use of files that track computer users' online movements, according to recent surveys conducted by the offices of 16 inspectors general.
On Tuesday, Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., announced preliminary findings from the IGs' reports, which found that 64 sites continue to use "persistent cookies," files that are stored permanently on a user's hard drive in order to monitor what pages the user has visited while surfing the Web. The use of "session cookies," which expire once a user's browser is shut down or upon the completion of a transaction, are not forbidden under the Clinton directive.
A policy implemented by the Office of Management and Budget in June 2000 forbade agencies from using cookies on any of their Web pages. Former OMB Director Jacob Lew said that "because of the unique laws and traditions about government access to citizens' personal information, the presumption should be that cookies will not be used at federal Web sites."
According to the preliminary findings, agencies are still using unapproved persistent cookies, failing to post required privacy policies on their sites and linking users to anonymous servers that collect their e-mail addresses without their knowledge.
The surveys are required by federal law. So far, about one-third of the surveys scheduled for completion in the next few months have been released.
The General Services Administration Office of Inspector General found that the agency is operating 15 sites with persistent cookies. GSA's Federal Technology Service's virtual Wireless Store was set up to allow a private contractor to maintain the site and collect user data according to its own privacy policies, not those of the GSA, according to the report. Under the arrangement, the contractor owns all the data, including individual names, e-mail addresses, financial information and other identifying personal information of users accessing the "store." Additionally, agency officials told the inspector general that cookies information collected on some GSA servers may be automatically sent back to the server's manufacturer.
The Transportation Department reported that it maintains 23 Web pages using the banned cookies. The FAA maintains 20 of those. Also, three Transportation contractors have collected personal information on department Web sites, but the inspector general found that the information gathering did not violate any privacy rules "because collection of personally identifiable information was either terminated or was limited to Transportation employees' online access" to private library holdings available online from companies with which the agency has contracted.
The Education Department's report says it operates four sites with persistent cookies and links nine pages to unidentified servers that collect user e-mails. Fifty percent of all pages collecting personal information lacked any posted privacy policies.
The Clinton administration amended the no cookies policy last September amid concerns about the rule's effect on the e-commerce efforts of federal sites. OMB allowed the use of session cookies at that time and allowed for persistent cookies only with approval from the Cabinet-level agency head or if an agency proved it had "a compelling need" to gather personal information. An OMB spokesman said there is no plan to lift the prohibition on persistent cookies.
By Shane Harris
April 18, 2001