Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Cookiegate

By H.B. Koplowitz

JULY 10, 2000:  They're calling it Cookiegate, as privacy advocates ask Congress to investigate a "cookie" found on a Web site funded by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Cookies are tiny text files placed on your computer by other computers so they can track what you are doing online. The ONDCP (www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov) is the federal agency in charge of the war on drugs. The cookie in question was tracking users, pun intended, who were searching for drug-related information online.

Cookies make Web surfing easier, but online marketing companies can also use them to invade your privacy. According to privacy advocates like Junkbusters.com and the "Electronic Privacy Information Center" (www.epic.com), without your knowledge or consent cookies can reveal who you are, which Web sites you visit, and your buying and other habits.

The recent revelation that the drug policy office was surreptitiously tracking Web users in violation of White House policy, and possibly the Privacy Act of 1974, was particularly embarrassing to the Clinton administration, which has endorsed a voluntary privacy protocol called the Platform for Privacy Preferences Project. Opposed by privacy advocates, P3P is being developed by the marketing industry to head off proposed laws to protect online privacy.

Bad enough that marketers track Internet users. But when the government gets involved, look out. As House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) noted, "the government should not be in the business of cybersnooping."

Shortly after the White House received a letter from Republicans concerned about online privacy for druggies, budget director Jack Lew announced a new policy prohibiting cookies on all federal Web sites or sites operated by private contractors on behalf of federal agencies unless there is a "compelling need to gather the data."

According to the Associated Press, Lew said that under the new policy, "using a cookie on a State Department Web site would require the personal approval of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright."

Whether or not the head of ONDCP, Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, was aware of the cookie, someone should ask him what did he know and when did he know it. Because the cookie isn't the only disturbing thing about the site, called "Freevibe" (www.freevibe.com), which is still operating.

The drug policy office has been accused before of overzealousness regarding paramilitary adventures in Central and South America and its cozy quid pro quo with Hollywood to slip anti-drug messages into TV shows. Cookiegate may be yet another example. For "Freevibe" has all the markings of a covert operation or sting. Only instead of foreign agents or Colombian drug lords, its target is America's children.

"Freevibe" provides a snappy blend of entertainment news and anti-drug messages targeted for teens and under. "Hang time (what's up, what's hip)," has info on "what's up in Hollywood, what's new at the movies, what's hot at the music store," while "heads up" prods you to "Get the skinny on drugs." There's also a section called "Kick It," which is about a drug-free soccer tournament.

So far so good. But it's hard to tell who really runs the site. A line at the bottom says "Freevibe" is "brought to you by" Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment and the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign (www.mediacampaign.org).

The campaign doles out hundreds of millions of dollars in ONDCP funds to spread anti-drug messages. But the only place that lets you know the site is funded by ONDCP, or even the government, is two-thirds of the way through its legalistic privacy policy where it states, "we are helping to manage Freevibe for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy as a part of their campaign to reduce drug problems in America."

According to news reports, the drug office used the public relations company Ogilvy & Mather to create "Freevibe," and the PR firm subcontracted the marketing to DoubleClick (www.doubleclick.com), the nation's largest Internet ad agency, which privacy advocates liken to the Microsoft of cookiedom.

DoubleClick used standard Web marketing techniques to promote "Freevibe." For example, it bought ad space on Web sites and paid search engines to show the "Freevibe" ad when people typed in certain search words. In this case, the key words included LSD, smack, weed, angel dust, drug abuse, addiction, and growing pot.

Once Web surfers clicked on the "Freevibe" banner and went to the site, DoubleClick would set a cookie on their hard drives. The cookie could tell DoubleClick, and presumably the feds, which other Web sites the user visited that have DoubleClick cookies on them. They would also know the search words the user typed to trigger the "Freevibe" ad.

An agency spokesman said the cookies were only used as they normally are by advertisers -- to monitor the effectiveness of the anti-drug campaign by tracking how many people clicked on the ads, which ads they clicked on, and what pages they looked at on the "Freevibe" site.

DoubleClick also denied the tracking technology was used to create profiles of Web users.

However, while cookies grabbed the headlines, the site's interactive elements may be even more appalling. "Shout it out" invites young people to "limber up your typing fingers" and share your drug experiences by posting them on the "Freevibe" bulletin board, which requires you to provide your e-mail address. And after incriminating yourself, you can "Lob a Buzz Bomb at your buds or send one to your crush," which means send an e-mail to your friends so the feds have e-mail addresses of your accomplices as well.

Okay, maybe I'm starting to sound like Oliver Stone. Still, Cookiegate should be viewed the same as pranksters that hack into government computers -- both are harbingers, canaries in coal mines, early warnings for what nightmares await if something isn't done soon to improve computer security and online privacy.

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