Did the White House Website Violate Its Own Privacy Rules?

A social-media firm used a new, persistent form of online tracking.

The White House is seen in the early evening September 24, 2008 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
July 22, 2014, 6:44 a.m.

The White House may have misled people who vis­ited its web­site about how it tracked their on­line be­ha­vi­or.

In a forth­com­ing pa­per, a group of re­search­ers write that thou­sands of top web­sites, in­clud­ing White­House.gov, have been us­ing a new, per­sist­ent type of on­line track­ing.

Justin Brook­man, the dir­ect­or of con­sumer pri­vacy at the Cen­ter for Demo­cracy and Tech­no­logy, said the track­ing was “prob­ably in­con­sist­ent” with the White House’s own web­site pri­vacy policy.

Brook­man noted that the White House’s pri­vacy policy is more spe­cif­ic than many cor­por­ate policies. The doc­u­ment states that Google Ana­lyt­ics may use cook­ies (com­mon track­ing files) to col­lect data on the site’s vis­it­ors.

But ac­cord­ing to the the pa­per, which was first re­por­ted on by ProP­ub­lica, the White House site and oth­er sites have been us­ing a firm called Ad­dThis, which used a form of track­ing dif­fer­ent from cook­ies.

Like cook­ies, the Ad­dThis “can­vas fin­ger­print­ing” tech­nique builds pro­files of users based on which web­sites they have vis­ited. But that track­ing tech­nique is harder to block or opt out of than cook­ies are.

“That wasn’t really de­scribed in the White House pri­vacy policy,” Brook­man said. “They prob­ably should’ve noted they’re ex­pos­ing in­form­a­tion to Ad­dThis.”

In re­cent years, the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion has cracked down on dozens of com­pan­ies, in­clud­ing gi­ants like Google and Face­book, for vi­ol­at­ing the terms of their own pri­vacy policies. Us­ing data in a way that vi­ol­ates a pri­vacy policy is a “de­cept­ive” busi­ness prac­tice, ac­cord­ing to the FTC law­suits.

The agency reg­u­lates only com­mer­cial prac­tices, so it wouldn’t have jur­is­dic­tion to act against the White House or any oth­er gov­ern­ment agency. Brook­man said it’s un­likely the FTC would even sue a com­pany for en­ga­ging in the same prac­tice.

But he said the in­cid­ent shows why so many com­pan­ies try to have the vaguest policies pos­sible.

“It does high­light why it’s so chal­len­ging to do pri­vacy policies,” he said. “They try to do a good job and make it really spe­cif­ic. Then later some so­cial-me­dia guy just got on there and ad­ded some new thing, and they didn’t up­date their pri­vacy policy.”

A White House spokes­man em­phas­ized that of­fi­cials were not “us­ing this tech­no­logy to track White­House.gov users.”

Rich Har­ris, the CEO of Ad­dThis, said the com­pany used can­vas fin­ger­print­ing only as a brief in­tern­al ex­per­i­ment and that it nev­er shared any data col­lec­ted us­ing the tech­nique with the White House or oth­er cli­ents.

“Many, many com­pan­ies in the in­dustry are ex­plor­ing new tech­no­lo­gies and meth­ods to re­place cook­ies,” Har­ris said. “The whole idea is to try and provide a bet­ter user ex­per­i­ence, a bet­ter per­son­al­ized ex­per­i­ence, and to provide tools that are ef­fect­ive for our cus­tom­ers.”

Ad­dThis tracks in­form­a­tion about who is vis­it­ing the White House web­site and how many people are shar­ing in­form­a­tion on Twit­ter and Face­book, he ex­plained.

The firm can also cus­tom­ize sites based on in­form­a­tion about the user. So, for ex­ample, the Tweet but­ton on a page may ap­pear high­er than the Face­book share but­ton for users from coun­tries where Face­book is un­com­mon, he said.

The firm also uses data to tar­get ad­vert­ising, but the White House web­site doesn’t have any ads.

Har­ris ar­gued that can­vas fin­ger­print­ing is ac­tu­ally less in­vas­ive than tra­di­tion­al cook­ies be­cause it provides less-ac­cur­ate in­form­a­tion on in­di­vidu­als. But the tech­nique is con­tro­ver­sial be­cause while a user can de­lete or block cook­ies, it’s nearly im­possible to opt out of can­vass fin­ger­print­ing.

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Source:
PEAK CONFIDENCE
Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Source:
CITIZENS UNITED PT. 2?
Movie Based on ‘Clinton Cash’ to Debut at Cannes
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."

Source:
×