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Last month, I covered how to help protect your online privacy by managing browser cookies when viewing Web sites. But what I haven’t looked into are the differences between private Web sites – which use cookies and track visitors per their own privacy policies – and those managed by federal government agencies – which are generally not allowed to use cookies. There are differences, and they are changing.

The federal government currently doesn’t collect visitor information via cookies, unless there is a clear statement on the agency’s Web site, as outlined by the Office of Management and Budget in a memo (markratledge.com/link/omb).

And cookie use has always been strongly discouraged. To use them agencies have to show “a compelling need to gather the data on the site.”

But that is changing, because some agencies are using the phrase “compelling need” as a loophole. According to the Washington Post, the White House has found itself in a bit of a controversy over using browser cookies at WhiteHouse.gov in conjunction with videos provided by Google via YouTube (markratledge.com/link/fedwebtracking).

As discovered by the Electronic Privacy Information Center through a Freedom of Information Act request, Google and the White House worked out a contract that waives cookie rules as they apply to Google and YouTube videos.

Privacy advocates say this is a big change in the federal governments policies, and that changes shouldn’t made be at the request of a private company. But the OMB points out that their directive has never applied to third-party cookies (i.e. YouTube videos that have third-party cookies from Google).

And there are different kinds of cookies – “session” and “persistent” – with different privacy implications. Session cookies are as temporary as your browser session, while persistent cookies are more complex and are used for user accounts that remember you.

Currently, WhiteHouse.gov places 10 session cookies during each browser visit, but no persistent cookies that stay around.

And it’s interesting to note that currently, WhiteHouse.gov’s privacy policy states that, “We may experience some engineering difficulties as the new WhiteHouse.gov (third-party persistent cookie policy) is posted and reviewed.”

Next week: The pending federal legislation of the Internet Safety Act.

Mac Q-and-A: Printing to a PDF file at markratledge.com/mac-q-and-a.

Mark Ratledge is an information technology consultant. His Web site is markratledge.com.

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