Cookie use in videos on gov't site prompts privacy concerns

Back when he was campaigning for president, 's skillful such as Facebook enabled him to get his message out to new audiences of voters in an unprecedented fashion. But using the same technologies in his new role as president is already proving to be more controversial.

Not even 10 days into , some privacy advocates are expressing concern about a White House decision permitting the use of persistent Internet cookies in video files embedded on the . Letting third-party cookies be placed on the site is a deviation from established executive-branch policy that leaves site visitors open to being tracked and profiled without their knowledge, the privacy advocates claim.

In a letter mailed Tuesday to White House Counsel Gregory Craig , the questioned a waiver that was issued by Craig's office concerning the use of cookies on the site. The waiver, which is now part of the site's modified allows the use of persistent cookies by "some third-party providers to help maintain the integrity of video statistics."

Cookies are small pieces of code that are installed on browsers by Web sites, in order to help the sites recognize the computers of users they next time they visit. Data such as the IP addresses of users, the Web sites they're coming from and how long they stayed on a particular site can be stored by cookies. Online advertisers and Web site operators often use such information to build for delivering and content to users.

According to the privacy policy, the persistent cookies will be planted only on the browsers of visitors who specifically click on video links. Users who want to view a video without having the cookies placed in their browsers can download a high-definition MP4 version of the file via a direct-download link, the policy says.

Typically, a YouTube cookie is installed whenever a user simply visits a page containing an embedded video. But last week, following some initial criticism of the waiver from privacy groups and bloggers, the White House implemented a technical fix that requires users to click on videos before cookies are placed in their browsers. (Another change was made on Sunday, to from the section of the privacy policy detailing the waiver.)