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White House Web Site Revisits Privacy Policy

Staffers address privacy concerns after a 1-by-1-pixel image file loaded by Web page code for tracking purposes is revealed.

The script sends more than two dozen system configuration details, including the referring URL that brought the user to the WhiteHouse.gov site; the ID of any WebTrends cookie already installed on the visitor's system; the language the browser is set to; time since last visit; current time; and whether Java, Flash, and Silverlight are installed.

Champeon also observed that if the user's browser has a query box, the WebTrends JavaScript will include any text in the box. At least in Firefox 3, queries typed into the query box are retained. That means a search conducted through one's browser query box prior to visiting the White House site would be transmitted to WebTrends. While searches generally aren't considered to be personal information, they can be, as the AOL search data fiasco in 2006 demonstrated.

Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, VP of marketing at WebTrends, explained that the client determines whether search information is tracked for site analysis purposes and that it's useful data for Web site managers who want to figure out what content site users are looking for.

People differ about whether using JavaScript this way is a security risk. "It's not a particularly safe practice or good for privacy, although most major sites still do it anyway, using WebTrends, Omniture, or Google Analytics," said Robert Hansen, CEO of security consultancy SecTheory, in an e-mail.

"We pay very close attention to [JavaScript issues] because it's very important to us from a privacy and security perspective," said Eric Butler, director of engineering at WebTrends. "This is stuff that has been vetted by security and privacy folks on a continuous basis. We feel pretty confident we're within industry standards." He added that WebTrends has deliberately not obfuscated its code so that people can read it.

Champeon said that the White House should acknowledge what's going on more thoroughly in its privacy policy, but doesn't see a significant problem, with the possible exception of the WebTrends code that is able to access a site visitor's query box.

Auerbach's concern has to do with the government's responsibilities under the Privacy Act. "WebTrends gets to see this [data], to keep it, to aggregate and cross-link it with other data, and to sell it to others, with no visible constraint from the WhiteHouse.gov privacy policy," he said.

WebTrends insists this isn't the case. "Our customers own their data," said Eric Butler, director of engineering at WebTrends. "We do not have any rights outside of the rights that they give us to store and maintain the data for us. It's truly an extension of their organization and ownership of the data. The data is stored in a Tier 4, very secure data center. And the only thing that the customer does is access it through our secure reporting interface and product to gain insight into their data."

Auerbach questions that assertion. "I would suggest that since the collection, aggregation, and conveyance of the data to WebTrends is from the user's computer and not from WhiteHouse.gov that a very strong argument can be made that the data belongs to the user, not WhiteHouse.gov," he said in an e-mail. "If they are, to take the other road, asserting that WhiteHouse.gov owns the data, then we must then recognize that since WhiteHouse.gov is a U.S. federal government entity, [the data] may be governed by the Privacy Act of 1974 and other applicable privacy laws. And those laws constrain the dissemination of government data to private companies unless those companies undertake the same limitations that are imposed upon the government."

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