Commercial Domestic Surveillance: The new White House Website, YouTube & Privacy

In a post for CNET yesterday, privacy expert Chris Soghoian revealed that President Obama’s White House “has quietly exempted YouTube from strict rules relating to the use of cookies on federal agency Web sites.”   Federal rules prohibit the use of what are called “persistent cookies,” that can track an online users activities and behavior.  Soghoian cites the new White House privacy policy that states, “A waiver has been issued by the White House Counsel’s office to allow for the use of this persistent cookie.”  Google’s YouTube received this exemption, notes the White House site, “to help maintain the integrity of video statistics.”

Now the White House has made a quick change, according to a post written today by Soghoian.  “Obama’s web team rolled out a technical fix that severely limits YouTube’s ability to track most visitors to the White House website,” he writes. “By late Thursday evening, each embedded YouTube video had been replaced with an image of a video player, which a user must click on before the real YouTube player will be loaded. The result of this change is that YouTube is now only able to use cookies to track users who click on the “play” button on an embedded YouTube video — the majority of people who scroll through a page without clicking play will not be tracked.”  But he also describes the new approach as a “band-aid. Those users who do click the play button will be secretly tracked as they navigate the White House website — and if those users have visited YouTube or any other Google run website in the past, the fact that they watched an Obama video will be added to the existing massive pile of data the company has compiled on each web surfer.”

But for those White House web site visitors who do click on the YouTube videos, they will likely become part of the data analysis which could be generated via Google’s YouTube Insight.  That’s a video analytics tool providing “detailed statistics” on video use.  One Google executive offered a commercial example of the tools’ features: “YouTube’s geographical insights could help marketers determine ad effectiveness and campaign optimization. For instance, he said, different versions of a movie trailer might perform better in different regions.”  Other YouTube analytical data available  includes a “demographics tab that displays view count information broken down by age group (such as ages 18-24), gender, or a combination of the two, to help you get a better understanding of the makeup of your YouTube audience. We show you general information about your viewers in anonymous and aggregate form, based on the birth date and gender information that users share with us when they create YouTube accounts.”  (Google says “individual users can’t be personally identified.”  But the company has embraced a narrow definition of what privacy protections users should expect, the so-called APEC standard).

Persistent cookies, explains U.S. Military Academy computer science professor Greg Conti, “can exist for many years…repeatedly identifying the user to the issuing web site…persistent cookies are specifically designed to uniquely identify users on return visits to web sites…In terms of anonymity, this is bad.  Advertisers have found innovative ways to exploit cookies to track users as they visit web sites that contain ads or other content.”  [source is Professor Conti’s terrific book, Googling Security:  How Much Does Google Know About You?  Addison-Wesley.  2009.  Page 73]

Of course, Google/YouTube’s cookie placed via a White House visit sets the stage for the company to further track and analyze citizens/ users.  Given YouTube’s ever-growing expansion as a commercial video advertising service, its ability to harness the White House data cookie will undoubtedly prove useful for the company.

The revised White House privacy policy does offer users a way to view the videos “without the use of persistent cookies” through the extra step of clicking the “link to download the video file… provided just below the video.” But we think opt-out is the incorrect approach.

The Obama White House should set the standard for protecting privacy in the digital era.  They should maintain the prohibition on persistent tracking cookies.  Nor should they permit any commercial operator, including Google’s YouTube, to engage in federally-sanctioned data collection.  We know the new Obama Administration has many important issues to address.  But they also need to develop a sophisticated critique of the online advertising industry, ensuring privacy and consumer protection.  The Obama Administration should be able to articulate a balanced perspective– that can take advantage and foster the democratic potential of digital media, while also meaningfully addressing the harms.

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

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