Taking a page out of the book of online advertisers, the Obama administration announced today that government agencies may begin tracking traffic and behavioral data online in order to better target information and services for the people who need them.
The goal here is two-fold. First, the administration wants to make the government’s web presence easier to navigate, and more useful. And second, it wants to monitor what information has proved most helpful so it can optimize how it communicates with American citizens on the web.
The issue of privacy is so crucial to the topic of government tracking and targeting that the memorandum the administration issued on the topic tackles it in the introduction. The Office of Management and Budget, which will be charged with carrying out the policy changes, assures that people shouldn’t be concerned about the government watching their every online move.
“Any such uses must not compromise or invade personal privacy,” the memorandum reads, in regards to new tracking efforts. “It is important to provide clear, firm, and unambiguous protection against any uses that would compromise or invade personal privacy.
The memorandum then goes on to define exactly what the government is thinking about doing in this area. The upshot is that it will be storing data on users’ interactions with government websites, and measuring traffic patterns that could yield deeper analysis.
In doing so, it will take extreme measures to separate individuals’ identities from their online behavior. There are also rules set out in the memorandum prohibiting agencies collecting this data from sharing it with anyone else, even other government departments, without express permission from the users in question.
On top of that, it needs to be simple for anyone to opt out of any of the measurement and customization features that are introduced. And any websites that choose to integrate them need to be very upfront about the changes in their privacy policies.
Other safeguards to be built-in include limits on how long measurement data can be retained (only for as long as it’s applicable to improving services) and requirements to comply with Federal Records Act regulations. Agencies’ measurement and customization tools are also subject to regular audits to ensure that they are, in fact, in compliance with these standards.
It’s unclear how the new policy will manifest itself, and how various agencies will use customization features to better serve those visiting their web sites. But it’s promising to see the federal government get a bit more web savvy. As long as it is convincing and upfront about how it’s protecting citizen privacy, the policy could help make government departments and agencies much more user-friendly.