Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Google’s YouTube White House Privacy Policy: “Trust Us”

the_conversationHow do we know that Google isn’t tracking the viewing records of people who watch YouTube videos at the official White House Web site? Because Google says so.

That’s the short version of a followup to a post I wrote earlier this month in which I noted that Google said it was no longer logging data from tracking cookies sent out from WhiteHouse.gov. That move was applauded by the privacy advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

But there’s a bit of important nuance that I should have highlighted the first time around, and I’m doing so now at a reader’s behest.

Long version: After I wrote my story, I got a note from Daniel Brandt, who runs Scroogle.org, a nonprofit that tries to foil Google’s attempts to track its users’ online behavior. He contended that that Google was still tracking YouTube views on the White House site. “I just clicked on a video at whitehouse.gov…and the YouTube Flash code phoned home to Google about two seconds into the video,” he wrote. “Nothing has changed. What is Google/YouTube talking about?”

I relayed that question to Google (GOOG) spokesman Scott Rubin, who said that Brandt was correct–up to a point. YouTube is still sending viewing data back to the mothership when you watch a video at WhiteHouse.gov. It just doesn’t pay attention to said data.

Rubin’s explanation:”Even though the cookies are still sent as before when playback starts (since we did not change the domains of the video or playback functionality), we no longer log this information.” Just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, I asked Rubin what exactly becomes of the cookie data that YouTube receives from the site. “We don’t store it anywhere,” he wrote.

Is that an adequate answer? It’s OK with me, but then again, I don’t ever assume that the Web offers real privacy. And if you have a rigid distrust of Google or other institutions in general when it comes to privacy issues, I’m guessing it won’t cut it.

But the EFF, which is about as vocal and aggressive as it gets when it comes to the stuff, is OK with the answer. Pretty much. Here’s legal director Cindy Cohn’s response to me when I relayed Rubin’s explanation:

It doesn’t satisfy us entirely, but it’s a small good thing. The part that is especially troubling here is how difficult it has been to get YouTube to publicly disclose the nature of this change, much less get a clear idea of what logging/tracking is still going on through other means. This information should be in the whitehouse.gov privacy policy, which right now is remarkably vague about what information is going to YouTube, much less what it does with the information it receives. YouTube should also disclose it, at least on their blog if not elsewhere. Basically now citizens won’t know unless they happen to follow EFF’s blog, your blog or one of the other tech media outlets who have followed the story. That’s a real problem. The public deserves to know–clearly and in nontechnical language–what is happening with their viewing information, both on Whitehouse.gov and elsewhere.

To sum up: If you’re the kind of person who’s worried about the information that Google collects about you when you surf the Web, you can feel a little more secure about what happens when you visit WhiteHouse.gov–if you’re the kind of person who’s placated by Google’s assurances. I’m guessing that’s a very narrow Venn diagram.

And in case you’re wondering, All Things Digital has its own cookie policy, which the site breaks out separately from its privacy policy. You can find it here.


Latest Video

View all videos »

Search »

When AllThingsD began, we told readers we were aiming to present a fusion of new-media timeliness and energy with old-media standards for quality and ethics. And we hope you agree that we’ve done that.

— Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, in their farewell D post