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White House stung by Web privacy stuff-up

Nuts, just when they had it licked

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The White House proudly announced Wednesday that its Web site will be among the first incorporating a new privacy gimmick called Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P), which will make any Web site's privacy policies instantly readable to browser software. Users will be able to configure its settings to block sites which do not conform to the standards they choose.

Industry is also getting into the act. Microsoft announced that it will incorporate P3P into Windows next year. (And what a terrible blow to on-line privacy if the company should have to split, separating its browser from Windows... are you getting this, consumers?)

The announcement should have been a nice bit of PR for the Clintonites, who have been searching for a magic bullet to balance the public's fear of on-line snoops with the need to keep Campaign 2000 contributions flowing from industry lobbyists savagely opposed to privacy legislation.

But in a very unfortunate bit of chance, only hours later, the White House was forced to acknowledge that its anti-drug bureau's Web site has been dropping cookies on visitors' machines and may have been collecting personal data in violation of federal policy.

"Today, White House officials learned for the first time from the Office of National Drug Control Policy about certain practices by ONDCP contractors that could result in the collection of information about consumers and their Internet use," White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said in a statement.

"We will take all steps necessary to halt these practices now," Lockhart added. "Specifically, ONDCP will halt the use of cookies on its behalf."

Lockhart said the ONDCP had never "requested or received any personally identifiable information based on the use of cookies." The ONDCP has directed its contractors to destroy any data gathered through the use of cookies, he added.

An earlier story by the Scripps Howard News Service claims that an ONDCP-sponsored site called Freevibe, which directs anti-drugs messages towards teenagers, is associated with privacy Nemesis DoubleClick.

It was not clear from the White House statement whether such sites would be required to modify their privacy policies to retain ONDCP sponsorship. ®

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