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Report: Government failing to protect privacy on Web sites

WASHINGTON (AP) – People who log onto dozens of federal government Web sites may be unknowingly tracked despite a privacy policy forbidding it, investigators say.

In one case, a government contractor was even given ownership of all the information collected from a Web site, said the congressional report released Monday.

The scope of the problem hasn’t been nailed down. For example, the report said NASA hasn’t determined how many Web sites it operates so officials don’t know how many might be gathering the information.



The report, culled from audits of 16 agencies, found 64 federal Web sites used files that allow them to track the browsing and buying habits of Internet users.

The departments of Education, Treasury, Energy, Interior and Transportation used such unauthorized files, as did NASA and the General Services Administration, the report said.



It did not estimate how many people may have visited the sites. But the company Jupiter Media Metrix, which tracks Internet usage, says government sites are popular. The company estimates that 3.5 million Internet users went to NASA’s Web site in March, and 2.2 million people visited the Education Department’s site.

Ari Schwartz, senior policy analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology, which follows privacy issues, called the report troubling.

”Generally when we think about privacy and the government, we want to make sure that the government is transparent and does protect privacy over and above the rest of the Internet and the rest of the private and nonprofit sector,” Schwartz said.

His organization was one of several that signed a letter Monday urging the Bush administration to promptly fill a post created by President Clinton to see that agencies adhere to privacy policies.

The new report was released by Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. He said he was upset by the findings and planned to introduce legislation that would establish a commission to examine government privacy practices.

Congress ordered all agency inspector generals to investigate the use of unauthorized tracking devices after the General Accounting Office reported in October that about a dozen agency Web sites were using the technology even though the Clinton administration issued a memo restricting the practice in June.

The only time agencies are supposed to be able to use such software is when there is a compelling need and agency heads say it is OK. In those instances, the Web sites must explicitly tell Internet users about the practice.

Contractors operating Web sites on behalf of the government also must abide by the policy.

The White House referred questions to the Office of Management and Budget, where spokesman Chris Ullman would say only that the policy remains in effect and the issue is ”something that we certainly are keeping an eye on.”

Eleven Energy Department Web sites used the unauthorized files, known as ”cookies,” prompting Inspector General Gregory Friedman to say the department ”cannot provide reasonable assurance” the privacy of Web site visitors will be protected.

GSA Inspector General William Barton found that a contractor managed the business operations of an agency site that used the tracking technology. The agreement gave the contractor ownership of all the information about the Internet users who visited the site.

Of the agencies surveyed, the Transportation Department was most likely to use the tracking files, according to the report. It had them on 23 Web pages, but the devices have since been removed, according to John Meche, the agency’s deputy assistant inspector general.

”Protecting Web privacy is an ongoing challenge because Web sites are constantly revised or reconfigured,” Meche said in his report.

NASA Inspector General Roberta Gross found three Web sites using unauthorized files, and she indicated the number could be higher.

Gross said NASA does not inventory its Web sites and is unable to reliably determine how many it owns or whether they are in compliance with government policies.


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