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US: Drug Office Tracks Computer Visitors

Media Awareness ProjectPubdate 21 Jun 2000

Corpus Christi Caller-Times

US: Drug Office Tracks Computer Visitors

Author: Lance Gay, Scripps Howard News Service

US: Drug Office Tracks Computer Visitors
DRUG OFFICE TRACKS COMPUTER VISITORSBut Official Denies That Government Programs Are Spying On People

WASHINGTON – The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has taken its anti-drug message to the Internet, and it is secretly tracking those who find it in the process.

Search for drug terms like “grow pot” on some Internet sites, and an ad banner that pops up from the drug office may drop a “cookie” program in your computer that tracks your online activities.

“It’s sort of spooky,” said Internet consultant Richard Smith, a privacy advocate and former software engineer.

But despite what one critic called “Big Brother” tactics, the White House drug office says there’s nothing surreptitious going on. The computer cookies are simply tracking its anti-drug media campaign.

“Cookies” are personal identifiers used to track the Web sites that computer users visit and what they buy. They identify Internet surfers by the service they are using to get access to the Internet, and can be matched with other information online to provide personal identification. Cookies are secretly inserted in personal computers when surfers visit certain Web sites.

Smith said he inadvertently discovered the U.S. government cookies being dropped into his computer while doing Internet research for pharmaceutical companies.

White House ads offering information on marijuana pop up when Internet users search for certain words connected to drugs on Internet search engines like AltaVista or Lycos. The banner ads steer users to the anti-drug site Freevibe.com, which is operated by the White House drug office. A tracking cookie is inserted in the user’s personal computer as the site is activated.

A Doubleclick Connection

Although Freevibe’s privacy notice states that “no information, including your e-mail address, will be sold or distributed to any other organization,” the site is connected to Doubleclick.com. Officials of Doubleclick, a New York advertising firm that is one of the largest companies gathering data on Internet user use, told the Senate Commerce Committee last week it is developing new products that will profile more than 40 million Internet users.

Freevibe’s site says the White House drug office will collect the e-mail address “only so we can identify your submission.” It does not disclose that it will drop a cookie program in the personal computers of visitors to the site.

Donald Maple, senior policy analyst with the White House drug office, said the cookie programs are part of the banner advertising campaign run through the New York advertising firm Ogilvie and Mather. He said the government is not getting personal information on visitors to the site.

‘Didn’t Know It Was There’

“We have a specific agreement with Ogilvie and Mather that they will not provide personal identification,” Maple said. He said the advertising company uses the data to determine which banner ads are effective, and to tailor the ads to attract more visitors.

Maple admitted one of the anti-drug sites operated by the White House drug office and visited by 240,000 parents a month seeking information on drug abuse is itself inserting cookies into the computers of visitors. He said the drug office did not know this until a reporter pointed it out, and Tuesday ordered the contractor to disable the program.

“We didn’t know it was there,” Maple said. “It won’t be shortly.”

‘Not Tracking Individuals’

Gary Towning, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy account at Ogilvie and Mather, said the use of cookies started only this month “to help us better understand if the (ad) banners are driving people to our site.” He said the advertising firm has also bought the rights to link the drug office’s ads with several words typed in on search engines, including the word “pot.”

“We’re not tracking individuals. There’s nothing identifying here,” he said. “We’re trying to understand our media campaign.”

Civil liberties lawyers said government tracking of Internet users could raise constitutional questions involving issues of searches without a warrant, and questioned why the government is monitoring citizen’s Internet activities.

‘A Case Of Big Brother’

“This is nothing like what was envisioned by members of Congress,” said Eric Sterling, former counsel to the House Judiciary Committee. Sterling worked with the panel in 1988 when it drafted the law creating the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy to coordinate the government’s anti-drug-use policies.

“This is what is fairly called a case of Big Brother, you know as in ‘1984’ where the government is clandestinely tracking you,” said Sterling, now president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation lobbying group.

Maple rejected concerns of civil liberties lawyers.

“I can’t see anything wrong with it at all,” he said, adding that the Internet is an ideal technology to reach young people with anti-drug messages.

MAP posted-by: Eric Ernst