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.

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