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YouTube, the Government, and Privacy

13 January 2009

It was just announced that every member of Congress will be able to create his or her own channel on YouTube. Viewers can go to the House or Senate home pages and navigate via a map to find the videos they're interested in. While it is good that citizens will have more insight into what their Senators and Representatives think, the way this is being done poses a serious privacy risk.

YouTube is, of course, a private company owned by Google. As such, it is not particularly constrained by (U.S.) privacy law. It can and does deposit cookies, deal with 3rd-party advertisers, etc. I opened a fresh web browser, with no cookies stored, and went directly to the House site. Just from that page, I ended up with cookies from YouTube, Google, and DoubleClick, another Google subsidiary. Why should Google know which members of Congress I'm interested in? Do they plan to correlate politcal viewing preferences with, say, searches I do on guns, hybrid cars, religion, privacy, etc.?

The incoming executive branch has made the same mistake: President-Elect Obama's videos on Change.gov are also hosted on (among others) YouTube. Nor does the privacy policy say anything at all about 3rd-party cookies.

The problem of government sites using persistent cookies is not new. 3rd-party cookies are much worse, because they allow cross-site tracking. As the CNET column suggests, the government should and must host its own videos.

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