Is the White House website tracking your data?

New 'canvas fingerprint' tool difficult to block

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The White House and the NSA have something in common; they both track website user data. But it looks like the folks at the White House might not have known it was happening, and the tracking could be a violation of the White House privacy policy.

Whitehouse.gov is among thousands of websites that have been tracking visitors' online behavior, usually without the visitors' knowledge, with an almost untraceable program, according to a new study by ProPublica.

It was researchers at Princeton University and KU Leuven University in Belgium who actually discovered the White House has been using the hard-to-detect type of user tracking called ‘canvas fingerprinting.'

Unlike cookies, the more common data collection technique that uses text files installed on your computer, canvas fingerprinting uses a web browser to draw a unique image associated with a device and is almost impossible to track.

The White House has been using a firm named AddThis to provide social media sharing tools on its site, according to ProPublica. And, as it turns out, AddThis includes the canvas tracking coding with its tools. As a result, ProPublica found, 5 percent of the top 100,000 websites -- including WhiteHouse.gov -- contain the canvas fingerprinting computer code.

The tracking tool builds user profiles based on the websites a person visits. If you’re a frequenter of Facebook, you’ll be familiar with the phenomenon. Canvas fingerprinting can track the articles a user reads and links they click on to better match them with advertisements.

By having canvas fingerprinting on its website -- intentionally or not -- the White House may be violating its own privacy policy, which states:

We do not use or share your information for commercial purposes and, except as described above, we do not exchange or otherwise disclose this information.

Even worse, such tracking might be illegal. The National Journal reports that in recent years the Federal Trade Commission has cracked down on many businesses that have violated their own privacy policies. Google and Facebook are among them. The FTC lawsuits found that using data in a way that goes against the stated privacy policy is a “deceptive” business practice.

Richard Harris, chief executive of AddThis, told ProPublica that the company is not planning to use the White House data for ad targeting or personalization and has so far only used the information for internal research and development. A White House spokesperson told the National Journal that officials were not “using this technology to track Whitehouse.gov users.”

AddThis chose not to notify any of the more than 5,000 sites, including Whitehouse.gov, that it tested canvas fingerprinting on, according to ProPublica.

Interestingly many of the sites listed that have the canvas fingerprinting coding through AddThis are media outlets including New York Daily News, The Blaze and cbslocal.com.

You can view the full list here.

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