Agencies continue to use forbidden 'cookies' on Web sites

Federal agencies are still using Internet "cookie" files that track computer users' online movements on some of their Web sites, despite a June 2000 directive from the Office of Management and Budget prohibiting them, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office. Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, asked GAO to review agencies' Web sites to determine whether their use of cookies was consistent with OMB's rules, and whether OMB had provided enough direction on the no-cookies policy to agencies operating public sites. The policy restricts the use of "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. Use of "session cookies," which expire once a user's browser is shut down or upon the completion of a transaction, is not forbidden. GAO's audit comes on the heels of a series of April reports by agency inspectors general concluding that dozens of agencies were still not complying with OMB's policy. In its report, "Internet Privacy: Implementation of Federal Guidance for Agency Use of 'Cookies' " (GAO-01-424), GAO reviewed 65 federal sites, including sites operated by 33 "high-impact" agencies, those that handle the majority of the government's interaction with the public. An additional 32 sites were randomly selected from the General Services Administration's government domain registry database. As of January 2001, most of the sites reviewed were following OMB's rules, the report found. Of eight sites that were still using persistent cookies, four didn't disclose that use on their site's privacy policy, as required. The report also found that OMB's directive to allow the use of session cookies may confuse visitors to federal sites. "The OMB guidance, while helpful, leaves agencies to implement fragmented directives contained in multiple documents. In addition, the guidance itself is not clear on the disclosure requirements for techniques that do not track users over time and across Web sites, such as session cookies," the report said. GAO recommended that OMB Director Mitch Daniels work with agencies and the CIO Council to unify and clarify cookies guidance. The report also urged OMB to disclose the use of session cookies in Web site privacy policies.

OMB spokesman Chris Ullman said that privacy is an important concern to the President. OMB is conducting a review of all privacy-related measures implemented by the Clinton administration, including the June 2000 OMB directive on cookies. The administration will make public more information on how it plans to address privacy issues in the coming months, Ullman said. In the meantime, he added, OMB is working with agencies to ensure they adhere to the cookies policies.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham last week ordered a top-to-bottom review of the agency's online operating practices to ensure that Energy is safeguarding the public's online privacy. The Secretary's order came after the Energy Department's inspector general released a February report that found the agency "cannot provide reasonable assurance to visitors of its publicly accessible Web sites that their privacy is properly protected as required by federal regulations."

Abraham directed the heads of all Energy branches to review all publicly accessible Web pages and sites "to ensure compliance with established policy on Internet privacy." The review is to focus on the appropriate use of cookies; each office will be required to submit a report on its findings to Energy's chief information officer, who will then brief the Secretary.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.