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More on YouTube, the Government, and Privacy

22 January 2009

I noted a few days ago the privacy risks from having government videos hosted on YouTube: that site can plant (or retrieve) its own tracking cookies. The Obama White House is aware of the problem, but has done exactly the wrong thing in response.

Cookies are, as has been widely documented, a privacy issue. This is recognized by the government's own privacy policies. (Also see the links here. None of the links are that page are newer than 2008. I don't know if I'm looking at an older page or an artifact of the transition, or whether privacy policies simply weren't updated during the Bush years.) But rather than solving the problem, the new White House privacy policy defines it out of existence:

For videos that are visible on WhiteHouse.gov, a `persistent cookie' is set by third party providers when you click to play a video. (We may experience some engineering difficulties as the new Whitehouse.gov is posted and reviewed. We intend, however, to fully enforce the above provisions as soon as possible. If you are experiencing any difficulties, please contact us.)

This persistent cookie is used by YouTube to help maintain the integrity of video statistics. A waiver has been issued by the White House Counsel's office to allow for the use of this persistent cookie.

If you would like to view a video without the use of persistent cookies, a link to download the video file is typically provided just below the video.

Apart from the fact that the last part isn't true, at least at the moment, on what grounds was such a waiver issued? (Chris Soghoian's post is well worth reading for many other reasons; he provides many more details.) The OMB regulation pointed to by the web page (which got the link wrong, but that's undoubtedly a transition issue) requires
  • the nature of the information collected;
  • the purpose and use for the information;
  • whether and to whom the information will be disclosed; and
  • the privacy safeguards applied to the information collected.
in the privacy policy. Has anyone ever gotten clear answers to those points from Google? And yes, these rules apply to contractors operating web sites for the government.

Obama's team has been in charge for only about a day, and rough spots are to be expected. The video issue isn't new, though; Soghoian posted about it almost two months ago. Simply saying "it's allowed here" doesn't solve the problem. I look forward to a real change.

YouTube, the Government, and Privacy

13 January 2009

It was just announced that every member of Congress will be able to create his or her own channel on YouTube. Viewers can go to the House or Senate home pages and navigate via a map to find the videos they're interested in. While it is good that citizens will have more insight into what their Senators and Representatives think, the way this is being done poses a serious privacy risk.

YouTube is, of course, a private company owned by Google. As such, it is not particularly constrained by (U.S.) privacy law. It can and does deposit cookies, deal with 3rd-party advertisers, etc. I opened a fresh web browser, with no cookies stored, and went directly to the House site. Just from that page, I ended up with cookies from YouTube, Google, and DoubleClick, another Google subsidiary. Why should Google know which members of Congress I'm interested in? Do they plan to correlate politcal viewing preferences with, say, searches I do on guns, hybrid cars, religion, privacy, etc.?

The incoming executive branch has made the same mistake: President-Elect Obama's videos on Change.gov are also hosted on (among others) YouTube. Nor does the privacy policy say anything at all about 3rd-party cookies.

The problem of government sites using persistent cookies is not new. 3rd-party cookies are much worse, because they allow cross-site tracking. As the CNET column suggests, the government should and must host its own videos.

A Telegraph-Era TLD?

9 January 2009

While doing research for a paper on telegraph codebooks, I was reminded of something I had long known: one could have short addresses for telegrams. A short article in The New Yorker described how it worked in New York City.

Briefly, one could pick more or less any name that wasn't in use, and list it with the Central Bureau for Registered Addresses. Many names were cute, such as Nostrop for the Gillette razor company or Illuminate for the New York Edison Company. Prices seem cheap — $2.50 per year — though this was during the Depression.

Errors were an issue: you couldn't register a name that could easily be confused with another given the error properties of Morse code. For example, A is "._", but if there's too long a space between the two signals it might be received as ET, which is .  _.

The Central Bureau also did error correction on failed address look-ups. To do this, they used things like reversed-name indices, an alphabetical list going right-to-left. The article suggests that most errors were in the first few letters of an address; I suspect it was more that the human doing the look-up at the receiving telegraph company could do any necessary error correction given the first few letters and an alphabetical list.

There turns out to have been a security angle as well, though I confess I don't understand it. This particular service was local to New York City, so perhaps we're really talking about the NYC.NY.US domain, rather than an analog to .COM. Originally, each cable company had its own address list. However, "In 1917, the State Department, fearing spies, abolished all existing lists and set up a uniform one for everybody." I don't know why having a single list would make life harder for spies. After the war, the article says that the cable companies realized that this was more convenient for everyone and set up their own single list. Personally, I suspect it was more a matter of customer demand.

I wonder, though, if some of the same issues we see today arose then. Were there trademark disputes? Telesquatting? It might be fun to research this history.