Mike Stepp, webmaster of the CIA?s public website, removed illegal software from it after a private group discovered that the CIA was using internet tracking technology called ?cookies? that is banned for federal use. This is despite the fact that there?s a notice on the CIA website that says, ?The Central Intelligence Agency Web site does NOT use the ?cookies? that some websites use to gather and store information about your visits to their sites.?
?It was a mistake on our part. It was not intentional,? says Stepp. ?The public does not need to be concerned that the CIA is tracking them. We?re a bit busy to be doing that.? Cookies are small software files that can be placed on computers without a person?s knowledge. They can distinguish user preferences, but they have been criticized for violating privacy because they can track people?s web surfing.
Daniel Brandt discovered that a CIA site had placed one of those long-lasting cookies on his computer. Brandt is president of Public Information Research, a private San Antonio-based group that collects publications related to intelligence and business. Brandt discovered the cookie, which will keep working until 2010, when he was looking at the website for the CIA?s Electronic Reading Room, which provides access to previously released agency documents.
?They?re not supposed to be doing this,? Brandt says. ?The keywords you put in reveal an incredible amount about what you?re looking for and what your interests are. It would be very, very tempting to track that kind of information.?
To make sure no improper information about site visitors was recorded, Stepp says two sets of log files will be destroyed. Congress issued a study last summer that found 300 cookies still on the websites of 23 agencies, despite the government ban.
Stepp claims an outside company redesigned the reading room website and says, ?Unbeknownst to us, it was loaded with?commercial off-the-shelf software used for web analysis.?
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The White House yesterday ordered all federal agencies to remove sensitive information on weapons of mass destruction and other data that might be useful to terrorists from their websites. This worries scientists and open-records advocates because the government is withdrawing thousands of documents that have been available to the public for years. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card sent a memo to the heads of all agencies and executive departments ordering an ?immediate re-examination? of all public documents.The officials were told to report their findings within 90 days to the Office of Homeland Security. ?You and your department or agency have an obligation to safeguard government records regarding weapons of mass destruction,? wrote Card in the memo.?Government information, regardless of its age, that could reasonably be expected to assist in the development or use of weapons of mass destruction, including information about the current locations of stockpiles of nuclear materials that could be exploited for use in such weapons, should not be disclosed inappropriately.?
The order goes much further than withdrawing documents on weapons of mass destruction. It also includes ?sensitive but unclassified information,? according to a second memo to agency heads, drafted by secrecy officials at the White House and Justice Department. ?The need to protect such sensitive information from inappropriate disclosure should be carefully considered, on a case-by-case basis,? says this.
This memo, written by Laura L.S. Kimberly, acting director of the Information Security Oversight Office, along with Richard L. Huff and Daniel J. Metcalfe, co-directors of the Justice Department?s Office of Information and Privacy, acknowledges that agencies must consider ?the benefits that result from the open and efficient exchange of scientific, technical, and like information.?
But this statement isn?t enough to soothe some scientists. ?A concern about terrorism can be used as a pretext for withdrawing all kinds of information that has little or no national security sensitivity,? says Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. ?And that is something we see happening all over the place.?
Officials have given examples of the type of information that will be withdrawn from public access. These include: Documents on ?dual use? nuclear materials, such as spent fuel rods from electric power plants, that could be helpful in converting those materials to weapons; information on heating and air conditioning systems that might help terrorists spread anthrax through public buildings; and computer maintenance data that might aid hackers in stopping the disbursement of Social Security checks.
?There was information that was on different Web sites that was actually being made available for sale that really shouldn?t have been out there,? says one official. ?For instance, there was a classified report that was generated in the ?50s, and declassified in the ?70s, that talked about how to build a biotoxin factory, and of course that was removed. Information that points to specific vulnerabilities at nuclear power-plant reactors or subway stations, for instance, would also be removed.?
Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, says, ?I?m overwhelmed. Nothing I?m familiar with in the law allows the executive branch to create a whole new category called ?sensitive but unclassified.? There?s an erosion that?s occurring to our basic framework of openness. We are moving very rapidly to a shift from basic democratic principles of right-to-know to one that is based on a need to know. That will have major, major reverberations for our democratic processes. It will mean that the judgment is placed on the government to determine whether you do have a need to know. And you have to justify it each and every time.?
Aftergood says the government has already pulled more than 6,000 documents from websites, including some that have no national security implications and calls the ?sensitive but unclassified? category worrisome. ?It?s potentially a catchall and it could be an invitation to abuse,? he says. ?Because it is not defined, it could be used to justify the withholding of almost anything. If it is left to the discretion of the individual agencies, they will abuse that discretion.?
The White House says, ?We?re asking for agencies to use a certain amount of judgment; we think that?s what Americans would want.?
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