White House Asks Public If It Wants Cookies

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The Obama administration is asking the public to weigh in on whether the government should liberalize its 9-year-old policy limiting the use of persistent cookies. In a blog post issued Friday, administration officials asked for opinions about matters including what basic principles should govern cookies, the choice between allowing consumers to opt out and requiring opt-in consent, and whether the use of cookies raises any non-obvious privacy issues.

"The goal of this review is to develop a new policy that allows the federal government to continue to protect the privacy of people who visit federal Web sites while, at the same time, making these Web sites more user-friendly, providing better customer service, and allowing for enhanced Web analytics," wrote Vivek Kundra, federal chief information officer, and Michael Fitzpatrick, associate administrator in the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

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Since 2000, federal agencies have not been allowed to use persistent cookies without clearance by an agency head. "In the ensuing time, cookies have become a staple of most commercial Web sites with widespread public acceptance of their use," state Kundra and Fitzpatrick. "For example, every time you use a 'shopping cart' at an online store, or have a Web site remember customized settings and preferences, cookies are being used."

Earlier this year, groups including the think tank Future of Privacy Forum and digital rights organization Center for Democracy & Technology proposed that the White House should loosen restrictions on cookies.

The government's use of cookies and other technology that potentially identifies particular computers is seen as raising more significant civil liberties issues than tracking by private companies who engage in ad targeting. But the government's decision regarding cookies could still affect Web companies' policies, says Jules Polonetsky, co-chair and director of the Future of Privacy Forum. "The ability of government to track users needs to be far more constrained than the private sector, but a smart policy that enables analytics and some degree of personalization could be very influential in showing what can be done," he says.

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