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1/23/2009
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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.

With the Obama administration now in place, White House media staff has been reviewing the WhiteHouse.gov Web site this week to address issues raised by privacy advocates.

Embedded YouTube videos, which previously loaded and deposited a persistent third-party YouTube cookie in visitors' browsers automatically, have been moved behind an image of the video player that must be clicked to initiate loading. This addresses an inconsistency in the White House site's privacy policy, which stated that there was a way to view videos without receiving a persistent cookie.

The review could lead to changes in the site's privacy policy designed to clarify its privacy practices.

This action appears to be in keeping with a commitment to be responsive to community concerns. In the first blog post on the new WhiteHouse.gov on Tuesday, Macon Phillips, director of new media for the White House, solicited user input and said that "this online community will continue to be a work in progress as we develop new features and content for you."

Revamped on Tuesday, the new WhiteHouse.gov Web site immediately elicited criticism for transmitting data about its visitors to WebTrends, a Web analytics company, without adequate disclosure.

On the Interesting People e-mail list, maintained by Carnegie Mellon computer science professor David Farber, Karl Auerbach, CTO of at InterWorking Labs and an attorney, warned Tuesday that the WhiteHouse.gov site contains a Web bug.

A Web bug, also known as a Web beacon by those who prefer terminology less suggestive of surveillance (WebTrends uses "Clear GIF"), is a file loaded by Web page code for tracking purposes. It often comes in the form of a 1-pixel-by-1-pixel image file, which is too small to be noticed but nonetheless registers in server logs like any other file.

The Web bug on the WhiteHouse.gov home page is fetched by JavaScript code -- called via the script at www.whitehouse.gov/includes/webtrends.js or through the URL enclosed in [noscript] tags -- that collects data about the visitor's computer configuration and packs that information into the URL used to request the Web bug.

Thus, in the process of receiving the remote request from WhiteHouse.gov to serve a 1-by-1-pixel graphic, WebTrends also receives certain details about those visiting the White House Web site.

Auerbach observed in an e-mail that while he recognized some of the data requested -- his screen resolution and whether he had Microsoft Silverlight installed -- the other data gathered by WebTrends was unclear.

In a separate e-mail message sent to Farber's list, Steven Champeon, CTO of Hesketh.com, deciphered the WebTrends JavaScript.

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