Share Your Cookies!

(This article is cross-posted from the IBM Center for the Business of Government Blog)

I’ve written before that we don’t pay enough attention to privacy.

There’s a lot of information about us all over the digital landscape, and powerful new aggregators are doing a brisk business by bringing all of that information together. Further, market research firms are using that data to figure out whether we want to buy Colgate or Tom’s of Maine.

Even if we don’t share our information with any sites, simply our Web history can be used to analyze us and make some predictions. Gender being one. Politics, another. Take a look at, a site that breaks down other sites’ web traffic by gender, income, geography, and other attributes.

Our Web history says so much about us that The Onion wrote a feature-length article about it: “Web-Browser History A Chronicle Of Couple’s Unspoken Desires

But if we pay too little attention to how the private sector (with our help) turns our discarded data into profit, we pay too much attention to how the government could, possibly, maybe, perhaps abuse data that it is currently prohibited from collecting. And even as we undervalue the data businesses collect about us–again, both with our consent and at times without it–we undervalue the full range of services that government could provide if it moved from a “need-to-know” stance to “need-to-share.”

Perhaps the best case-in-point is the Social Security Administration. They fully comply with the new directives published by OMB. On their Privacy Policy page, under “sharing your information”, the first sentence reads “We may share the information you provide with our employees or representatives with a “need-to-know,” other Federal agencies (for example, Railroad Retirement Board, or the Department of Veterans Affairs), or other named representatives as needed to expeditiously process your request or transaction.” (emphasis mine.)

But let’s pause a moment to ask: who really understands all of the benefits they’re entitled to when they first start to investigate government Web sites? Imagine if the same algorithms that look at your GMail to pick which ads you should see also looked at your history on government sites to notify you which services you need?

We are clamoring for government to open up its data; shouldn’t we be willing to be a little more open about our own?

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Jay S. Daughtry, ChatterBachs

Interesting. There’s a fine line between useful and harmful information… or with a given organization how this information on the public it serves is utilized…

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Thanks for the comments, Jay and Stephen.

Jay – what I’m interested in is government being able to use the same tools that private companies do to analyze their users’ behavior and suggest other content ~across government sites~ that their visitors are likely to find useful.

For example, if you’re on the SSA site and you’re looking up benefits for cancer patients and benefits for veterans, the site should prompt you to visit HHS pages on cancer treatments, pages for cancer support groups for your family, and the VA pages on benefits for vets.

Stephen: I agree that info sharing ~should~ be a two-way street, but right now I feel like we’re letting the private sector do whatever it wants with our data and curtailing it only when its abuses become too creepy to ignore. Conversely, we’re preventing the government from using our data until the benefits from its doing so are to great to ignore. I think we need to move to a more deliberate, conscientious policy in both the private and public sector.

I’d invite you to take a gander at an article I published on Huffington Post: The Dark Side of Public=Online. I’d love to know what you think.

Tim Evans

Well, the recently issued OMB policy on “Web Measurement and Customization” explicitly states:

“Under no circumstances may agencies use such technologies [web measurement technologies]:

. to track user individual-level activity on the Internet outside of the [agency] website;

. to share the data obtained through such technologies, without the user’s explicit consent, with other departments or agencies”

Pretty clear…

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Tim – That’s what I’d like to see changed. I think this is a reflexive position, and counterproductive. Further, we don’t apply these rules to private-sector organizations, so it’s not as if this kind of information sharing is either technically impossible (or even difficult), nor politically unpalatable.

I think that government sites (and all sites, really) should allow users to opt out–which can also be done by disabling cookies on your browser. But not even to make it available seems like an unnecessary constraint.