Despite law, government agencies have been tracking visits to websites

Mike Riggs Contributor

From the folks at NextGov:

Some federal departments have obtained waivers to sidestep a long-standing policy that bars government Web sites from tracking visitor activity on the Internet.

In 2000, the Office of Management and Budget issued a federal policy banning the use of persistent cookies, files that a Web site deposits on a user’s computer to collect information about how the visitor navigates the site to provide more personal interaction. The policy was established to protect personal privacy, but it hinders the government’s ability to provide richer online experiences for the public, say critics of the ban.

They add the ban is outdated and stymies efforts to solicit and respond to what the public wants, noting commercial sites routinely employ cookies to enhance their public outreach. Even civil liberties advocates favor the use of agency cookies as long as they allow visitors to opt-out and do not collect personally identifiable information. White House officials began considering a new cookie framework last summer, but they have not instituted changes yet.

Some Obama administration officials and many open government activists have urged OMB to rewrite the policy so Web managers can tailor agency sites to visitors’ preferences and conduct other traffic analysis that the public now typically expects from private sector sites.

In the meantime, some departments, including the General Services Administration and NASA, have used a little-noticed provision in the original cookie policy that allows agency heads to authorize the use of the tracking technologies if they have a “compelling need.” OMB is not required to sign off on the waivers, nor are agencies required to tell OMB if managers have granted waivers. A 2003 revision to the cookie policy stated agencies must report the use of tracking technology to OMB, and identify the circumstances, safeguards and approving official.