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
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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.

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