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Cookies: Government Trojan Horse Violating Privacy or Overblown Threat?

Cookies: Government Trojan Horse Violating Privacy or Overblown Threat?

Source: Central Intelligence Agency. Public Access News. January1, 1999.


Several articles have highlighted the potential problem of cookies, including the federal government's misuse of them as a violation of individual privacy rights. According to the OMB Watch--a nonprofit organization monitoring federal government responsiveness to its citizens--in a report on which most of the press articles were based, the problem may not be one of government abuse as much as its inexperience with Internet technology.

What Are Cookies

Cookies are actually small files used by an organization's server to track user information across several World Wide Web (WWW) pages or WWW sessions. These files are placed on a user's hard drive by the user's browser. Cookies serve several functions: they prevent the web site from identifying you as a first time visitor each time you access a site, track what information you view at a site (important to commercial sites trying to determine your buying preferences), and in the more advanced ones track your movements through many Web sites but not the whole Web.

Who Uses Cookies and Why

Cookies appear to be used mostly in the commercial world. Businesses use them for customer convenience to allow them to produce a list of items to buy and pay for them all at one time and to garner information about what individuals are buying at their sites. Advertisers use them merely to determine the effectiveness of their marketing and offer insights into consumer preferences and tastes by collecting data from many Web sites.

Government Use: Innocent Misstep or Abuse?

The OMB Watch report, which was more concerned about setting government policies to allow access without violating privacy, surveyed the web sites of 70 federal agencies and discovered only three using cookies. Although the report identified three agencies using the technology at the time, all three immediately ceased using the technology after OMB Watch brought it to their attention. Moreover, in one program, the cookie was set by default without the agency's knowledge, a common problem according to an industry expert cited in the report.

Privacy Issues

It appears that privacy concerns focus on the tracking of an individual's movements across several sites because it can reveal a visitor's personal preferences and particular interests--especially, in the government's case, if the site is also collecting personal identifier information during the session such as your name, e-mail address, and so forth and then creating a database to retrieve that information using the personal identifiers.

Federal Guidelines for Cookie Use

Despite not being legally required to provide notice of cookie use and awaiting the issuance of federal guidelines, Department of Defense has already set a policy that individuals accessing its WWW sites should be notified of the use of cookies and the purpose for their use. The following is an example of a cookie disclaimer:

"This site uses a technique know as cookies to provide better services to our users. Cookies allow us to keep a record of your activities while visiting our WWW site. If you object to this monitoring, you may wish to exit this WWW site at this time."

Users accessing this CIA FOIA site should be aware that we do not collect any privacy data or use cookies. See our "Privacy and Security" notice on our home page to see what we monitor at this site.

Ways To Defeat Cookies

Even if business and government persist in using this technology for whatever reason, users can defeat it by using one of the following methods:

  • Turn the browser feature on that alerts you to any WWW site's effort to place a cookie on your hard drive.
  • Turn the cookie file into a read-only file

Purchase a cookie-eating program !


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).