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Cookie use in YouTube videos on WhiteHouse.gov prompts privacy concerns

New waiver to Web site's privacy policy lets third-party cookies be included in video files

January 28, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Back when he was campaigning for president, Barack Obama's skillful use of Web 2.0 technologies such as Facebook and YouTube enabled him to get his message out to new audiences of voters in an unprecedented fashion. But using the same technologies in his new role as president is already proving to be more controversial.

Not even 10 days into Obama's presidency, some privacy advocates are expressing concern about a White House decision permitting the use of persistent Internet cookies in YouTube video files embedded on the redesigned WhiteHouse.gov Web site. Letting third-party cookies be placed on the site is a deviation from established executive-branch policy that leaves site visitors open to being tracked and profiled without their knowledge, the privacy advocates claim.

In a letter mailed Tuesday to White House Counsel Gregory Craig (download PDF), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) questioned a waiver that was issued by Craig's office concerning the use of cookies on the WhiteHouse.gov site. The waiver, which is now part of the site's modified privacy policy allows the use of persistent cookies by "some third-party providers to help maintain the integrity of video statistics."

Cookies are small pieces of code that are installed on browsers by Web sites in order to help the sites recognize the computers of users they next time they visit. Data such as the IP addresses of users, the Web sites they're coming from and how long they stayed on a particular site can be stored by cookies. Online advertisers and Web site operators often use such information to build behavioral profiles for delivering targeted advertising and content to users.

According to the WhiteHouse.gov privacy policy, the persistent cookies will be planted only on the browsers of visitors who specifically click on video links. Users who want to view a video without having the cookies placed in their browsers can download a high-definition MP4 version of the file via a direct-download link, the policy says.

Typically, a YouTube cookie is installed whenever a user simply visits a page containing an embedded video. But last week, following some initial criticism of the waiver from privacy groups and bloggers, the White House implemented a technical fix that requires users to click on videos before cookies are placed in their browsers. (Another change was made on Sunday, to remove YouTube's name from the section of the privacy policy detailing the waiver.)

In the letter that the EFF sent to Craig, Cindy Cohn, the Washington-based group's legal director, welcomed the White House's quick response in making the fix but said that the waiver continues to raise questions about privacy.



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