The Obama Administration’s promise to increase citizen participation in government using Web 2.0 technologies is already raising questions; current federal policies may need to change in order to take full advantage of such technologies. Challenges to successful use of these technologies will, no doubt, come from a variety of places: legal, policy, security and privacy. Ingrained institutional resistance is also a potential roadblock to innovative use of new technologies.
The federal government should maintain a policy that guides agencies in the use of tracking technologies, but parts of the current policy need to be revised in order to better reflect the realities of agency culture, of user expectations, and technological progress. In addition, these guidelines should reflect fair information practices in allowing users to make choices about the information that is collected when they visit federal websites.
Currently, in order to comply with the federal cookie guidelines, a government website:
–must have a compelling need to gather the data through cookies;
and must have personal approval from the agency head, or a delegate who reports directly to them.
These policies gave federal websites better guidance on what kinds of technologies they were free to use, and what technologies needed further consideration. However, it is still not completely clear what kinds of technologies are covered by these policies, other than cookies or Web beacons, when they are not explicitly used for tracking. Additionally, these guidelines do not allow for user control at all; rather than allowing users the option of advanced features that are powered by cookies or tracking technologies, the policies mean no users have access to advanced features.
Problem With Policy: No User Control
In the years since these cookie policies were written, there have been many enterprising stories on federal websites using cookies outside the OMB policy- most amusingly, NSA and the White House itself. This was not too surprising considering that many off-the-shelf products set cookies by default, but it did raise the issue again and again making it clear that there remains public concern over how tracking is done and whether the government can follow its own privacy policies.
Since OMB issued these cookie policies, the use of persistent identifiers on the Internet has changed significantly. It may be time to re-evaluate acceptable uses for cookies on federal websites. Many Web sites offer pro-active controls to allow, but not force, users to store information about themselves. Most Internet users have also come to expect the kinds of features and services from websites that are often dependent on state mechanism of some sort.
Tomorrow, we will explore we think a new policy should look like in more detail.