Skip to comments.NSA Web Site Places 'Cookies' on Computers
Posted on 12/29/2005 8:00:16 AM PST by ShadowAce
NEW YORK (AP) - 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.
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 today.
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 "compelling need."
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 orders.
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 al-Qaida.
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 data."
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.
It's the holiday season! Cookies are everywhere! I know I've eaten way too many this year!...........Those little Danish butter cookies are very addictive............
Name a website that doesn't put cookies on your computer. Now that would be news.
I'm not the biggest computer expert, but the story even says this is pretty darned common.
As far as I am concerned, this is a total non-story and, again, more Tokyo-Rose type bullsh*t. Forgive the language, but I'm sick of it.
If I'm wrong I'll thank anyone for the correction in advance.
Let me get this straight..The NYT,WP, ABC, NBC,CBS and the rest of the lame stream media can put cookies on your computer..but not the federal government trying to hunt down terrorists? I wonder if they realize how ridiculous they sound complaining about this?
The media is getting desperate for dirt.
They were probably planning to write a story on how hard
it was to navigate the NSA site, discovered it wasn't,
and decided to make that the story.
Every "outraged" liberal who reads this on any on-line
news site will be doing so on a site that not only uses
preference cookies, but runs ads with real tracking
cookies, not all benign.
A website that places cookies on your computer -- oh the horror of it.
CNN is cooking this up something fierce, telling its naive viewers that this a "tracking mechanism" to spy on web surfers.
Yep, but this slant of the story can make it seem as if Bush really is trying to keep his eye on us. No mention of how easy it is to delete cookies either.
Here go to my website and I'll give you a cookie too.
OH, The Horrors!
Exactly, the cookie monster is built into all computers.
Just delete them and put your history folder on 0.
What a load of malarky.
God Bless America!
At least they don't bombard us with pop-ups!
Ya mean the same ones used by every other site to track your computer? Run AD-AWARE SE [It's free], and I guarantee that many will be surprised by who is tracking their every move.
Most browsers can delete and block cookies, no biggie.
That's right. Now if the NSA starts putting pop-up ads on their site I might be a little miffed. No excuse for that! ;-p
If No Such Agency wanted to track you or me they wouldn't have to wait for us to vist their web page. Media idiots.
Macaroons are the bomb. Ooops better not say bomb.
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