By ANICK JESDANUN, AP Internet Writer
The National Security Agency's Internet site has been placing files on
visitors' computers that can track their Web surfing activity despite
strict federal rules banning most of them.
The first thing they do is examine your computer to see where you have
been, according to other cookies. Then they implant a cookie of their
These files, known as "cookies," disappeared after a privacy activist
complained and The Associated Press made inquiries this week, and
agency officials acknowledged Wednesday they had made a mistake.
Nonetheless, the issue raises questions about privacy at a spy agency
already on the defensive amid reports of a secretive eavesdropping
program in the United States.
"Considering the surveillance power the NSA has, cookies are not
exactly a major concern," said Ari Schwartz, associate director at the
Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy advocacy group in
Washington, D.C. "But it does show a general lack of understanding
about privacy rules when they are not even following the government's
very basic rules for Web privacy."
Until Tuesday, the NSA site created two cookie files that do not
expire until 2035 -- likely beyond the life of any computer in use
Don Weber, an NSA spokesman, said in a statement Wednesday that the
cookie use resulted from a recent software upgrade. Normally, the site
uses temporary, permissible cookies that are automatically deleted
when users close their Web browsers, he said, but the software in use
shipped with persistent cookies already on.
"After being tipped to the issue, we immediately disabled the
cookies," he said.
Cookies are widely used at commercial Web sites and can make Internet
browsing more convenient by letting sites remember user
preferences. For instance, visitors would not have to repeatedly enter
passwords at sites that require them.
But privacy advocates complain that cookies can also track Web surfing,
even if no personal information is actually collected.
In a 2003 memo, the White House's Office of Management and Budget
prohibits federal agencies from using persistent cookies -- those that
aren't automatically deleted right away -- unless there is a
A senior official must sign off on any such use, and an agency that
Peter Swire, a Clinton administration official who had drafted an
earlier version of the cookie guidelines, said clear notice is a must,
and `vague assertions of national security, such as exist in the NSA
policy, are not sufficient."
Daniel Brandt, a privacy activist who discovered the NSA cookies, said
mistakes happen, "but in any case, it's illegal. The (guideline)
doesn't say anything about doing it accidentally."
The Bush administration has come under fire recently over reports it
authorized NSA to secretly spy on e-mail and phone calls without court
Since The New York Times disclosed the domestic spying program earlier
this month, President Bush has stressed that his executive order
allowing the eavesdropping was limited to people with known links to
But on its Web site Friday, the Times reported that the NSA, with help
from American telecommunications companies, obtained broader access to
streams of domestic and international communications.
The NSA's cookie use is unrelated, and Weber said it was strictly to
improve the surfing experience "and not to collect personal user
Richard M. Smith, a security consultant in Cambridge, Mass., questions
whether persistent cookies would even be of much use to the NSA. They
are great for news and other sites with repeat visitors, he said, but
the NSA's site does not appear to have enough fresh content to warrant
more than occasional visits.
The government first issued strict rules on cookies in 2000 after
disclosures that the White House drug policy office had used the
technology to track computer users viewing its online anti-drug
advertising. Even a year later, a congressional study found 300
cookies still on the Web sites of 23 agencies.
In 2002, the CIA removed cookies it had inadvertently placed at one of
its sites after Brandt called it to the agency's attention.
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
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