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
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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 »
PENCE BREAKS THE TIE
Senate Will Debate House Bill
2 hours ago
THE LATEST

By the narrowest of margins, the Senate voted 51-50 this afternoon to begin debate on the House's legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins defected from the GOP, but Vice President Pence broke a tie. Sen. John McCain returned from brain surgery to cast his vote.

Source:
WON’T SAY IF HE’LL FIRE HIM
Trump “Disappointed” in Sessions
3 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

“'It’s not like a great loyal thing about the endorsement,'” Mr. Trump said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. 'I’m very disappointed in Jeff Sessions.'”

Source:
MURKOWSKI, COLLINS VOTE NAY
Republicans Reach 50 Votes to Proceed on Health Bill
3 hours ago
THE LATEST
INTERVIEWED KUSHNER FOR OVER THREE HOURS
House Russia Probe: Kushner “Satisfied” Questions
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Republicans who interviewed Jared Kushner for more than three hours in the House’s Russia probe on Tuesday said the president’s son-in-law and adviser came across as candid and cooperative. 'His answers were forthcoming and complete. He satisfied all my questions,' said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who’s leading the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, including possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign."

Source:
VICTORY FOR GUN RIGHTS ADVOCATES
Appeals Court Block D.C. Gun Control Law
5 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday blocked a gun regulation in Washington, D.C., that limited the right to carry a handgun in public to those with a special need for self-defense, handing a victory to gun rights advocates. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit's 2-1 ruling struck down the local government's third major attempt in 40 years to limit handgun rights, citing what it said was scant but clear guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court on the right to bear arms."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login