Drug cookies

Why was the White House drug office monitoring your computer behavior?

Published June 23, 2000 6:55PM (EDT)

The White House drug office can't seem to keep itself out of trouble these days. In the latest scandal to befall the beleaguered Office of National Drug Control Policy, whose dubious ties with television screenwriters have been documented on this site's Web pages, the agency was forced to admit earlier this week that it allowed an Internet data mining operation to collect information from visitors to its youth-oriented anti-drug site FreeVibe.

New York Internet advertising agency DoubleClick supplied ONDCP with the controversial cookie technology the agency used to data mine -- a term used to describe the gathering of personal or anonymous information about Internet users in order to track their demographics and Web page dietary habits. The administration seemed blindsided by the news, and even Washington privacy advocates suggested that it was probably a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing.

In a press briefing Wednesday, Clinton voicebox Joe Lockhart took great pains to distance his boss from the latest ONDCP fiasco, informing reporters that the president hadn't heard anything about it until that day. Lockhart also said the White House ordered the ONDCP to "take all steps necessary to halt these practices now" and to order DoubleClick and other contractors to destroy any data that had been compiled using the cookie technology that had been used on the site.

But calls from reporters and an upbraiding by the president had the ONDCP on the defensive, too. ONDCP senior policy analyst Don Maple told Salon that the "pixel tracking" cookie was used because Ogilvy & Mather, the national firm that does the principal planning and placement of the ONDCP's anti-drug campaign, requested better tracking of click-throughs on ONDCP banner ads. Presumably, Ogilvy & Mather wanted to determine the effectiveness of ONDCP's targeted ad placement on other Internet sites. Maple stated firmly that the ONDCP has not used the software to track personal data about the users; the cookies anonymously tracked users to the ONDCP's Web site and followed them anonymously as they traveled through its pages. "We felt the privacy safeguards were complete," he said.

The gaffe is embarrassing for the White House for two reasons. First, two years ago and with great fanfare, President Clinton supported efforts to pass a law in April 1998 that would protect children from data mining by commercial Internet companies. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act does not apply to government sites, but some of the very people who helped pass that legislation think it's hypocritical for the government to use software technology that is often associated with surreptitious collection of personal data from Internet users, even if it is only tracking users anonymously. Maple said the ONDCP was under orders to comply with COPPA, and that he believes the technology partnership with DoubleClick was not a violation.

"The sheer irresponsibility of it and the ethical position they put themselves in was quite shocking," says Andrew Shen, a policy analyst at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an Internet privacy rights organization in Washington.

Second, DoubleClick's plans to merge the data it collects from Internet users with other databases so outraged regulators that the Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation into the company. It was exactly the sort of predatory practice the Clinton administration was trying to protect children from when it pushed the privacy bill in 1998.

"That's not a very good company to outsource to if you're collecting information and trying to do it in a responsible manner," said Shen.

The ONDCP's data mining techniques don't violate COPPA, since that law only applies to commercial Web sites, but Center for Media Education president Kathryn Montgomery, who lobbied for passage of the youth data mining law and "badgered" the Clinton administration into supporting it, says that shouldn't matter. "The principles should be applied everywhere," she says. "The whole idea that there's this surreptitious monitoring and marketing going on is not ethical in my opinion, even though it's becoming very common. They're doing it with young people, with children. I think it was unethical and inappropriate."

"I think they are often very willing to embrace the practices of the commercial industry," Montgomery says, "believing that that's the latest thing and the appropriate thing to be doing."

Says the ONDCP's Maple: "What it looked like when we were briefed on this months ago was that it was the standard business practice employed by virtually everybody." But sometimes, the latest, greatest technology can lead to disaster, as even Maple now admits.

"It looks different today than it did months ago," Maple concedes. "It makes a big difference when you see and hear the reaction by the White House -- not for the technical specifics of what we understood we were doing, but to the perception of many to any form of this tracker technology." Maple also said the organization had underestimated the sensitivity of President Clinton to tracking technologies.

"We underestimated their sensitivity to the use of any form of tracking devices with respect to privacy. Having been apprised, we immediately agreed to cease and stop using them. It doesn't have any major effect on the campaign," he said.

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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