Administration Aims for Web Privacy


Monday, October 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) — The Clinton administration is stepping up its effort to ensure the government protects Americans' personal privacy after a congressional report alleged federal agencies electronically track users online.

When asked about the report, which said 13 federal agencies ignored a directive against tracking visitors to government Web sites, White House spokesman Jake Siewert said the administration is starting to keep tabs on agencies.

``What we've done concretely is to ask them, when they submit their budget requests in December, to give us an update on exactly where they are in the process and how they're correcting their policy if it's out of compliance with our regulations,'' Siewert told reporters.

Siewert and the White House's Office of Management and Budget made a distinction — also made in the original General Accounting Office study — between helpful tracking by electronic ``cookies'' and surreptitious collection of information.

In a letter responding to the GAO, the budget office's deputy director for management, Sally Katzen, said that some of the cookies used on federal sites are helpful, similar to ``shopping cart'' cookies on a retailer's Web site.

On an Education Department site, cookies help student loan recipients fill out applications and consolidate their loans online. The U.S. Mint shopping site also uses cookies to keep track of purchases.

``These session cookies also have important advantages for electronic government'' and are not covered by the White House order barring cookies, Katzen wrote.

Since the original June order, officials have attempted to redefine how the government should use cookies that enhance a Web site visitors' experience but not intrude on privacy.

Forbidden are so-called ``persistent'' cookies, which track Web habits over years, and the dissemination of a person's information to a private company. Congressional investigators found seven federal agencies that used one or both of those methods.

Federal agencies may have to report their progress to Congress as well as the White House. Language introduced in the House by Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., and attached to a must-pass spending bill would make agencies disclose within 60 days how they collect information online from citizens.

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The spending bill is H.R. 4871.

On the Net: Office of Management and Budget: http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb

General Accounting Office: http://www.gao.gov