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Candidate Web sites short on privacy policies

Most congressional candidates are asleep when it comes to protecting personal information on their own Web sites, a new study shows.

Most congressional candidates are asleep when it comes to protecting personal information on their own Web sites, according to a study released Monday.

Political scientists at the University of Pennsylvania found that although most of the 731 congressional candidates up for election Tuesday collect names, addresses and other data from supporters visiting their Web sites, only 15 percent offer privacy policies.

Some candidates disputed the results of the study, saying the data is out of date.

However, indications that many candidates do not publish strong privacy policies on their Web sites came as no surprise to Christopher Hunter, a policy analyst who conducted the study.

"This is the first go-around for the candidates, and I saw it more as a reflection of not knowing how to use the new medium," said Hunter, who is with the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Concerns over consumer privacy peaked earlier this year when privacy advocates accused several online companies of building extensive dossiers on their customers. Many feared the information could be put to improper use or end up in the wrong hands. As a result, lawmakers began introducing one bill after another in an effort to crack down on Net privacy breaches. No federal law governing general online consumer privacy has yet been approved.

In an effort to keep regulators at bay, online industry leaders proposed a heavy dose of self-regulation aimed at keeping Web site data-collection practices in check.

The presidential campaigns have touched on the privacy debate, with each candidate vowing to do something to quell concerns. However, in Hunter's two-page report published at Netelection.org, he noted that "the message...has clearly not filtered down to the Internet campaigns of most House and Senate candidates."

Take, for instance, the Web site for Rick Lazio, Republican Senate candidate for New York. Hunter's report criticized Lazio for featuring a vague privacy statement, such as "We promise to protect your privacy," without explaining how much information is collected and what is done with it.

In an email response, Lazio's Webmaster, who did not provide a name, said a detailed policy statement went up late and was perhaps missed by Hunter.

Study disputed
"We feel the study is incorrect," the Webmaster wrote in an email. "The policy statement went up late. Although it all should have gone up at exactly the same time, we entered the race late and needed to have all content/statements reviewed before linking them on the site."

Lazio now displays a policy vowing not to share information with third parties and explaining that some data is necessary to meet Federal Election Commission (FEC) requirements.

The Web site of Lazio's Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, publishes a privacy policy stating that the site collects no data on visitors. "We do not require you to register nor do we assign you a visitor's password--therefore, we have no way of personally identifying you," the privacy policy reads.

In the study, Hunter praised Florida congressional candidate Jean Elliott Brown, a Democrat, for clearly explaining on her Web site why certain information is needed and what will be done with it.

Brown credits Jeff Stanger at Washington, D.C.-based NetCampaign for the solid privacy policy.

"Politicians can pay a heavy price on Election Day if a privacy breach were to happen," Stanger said.

Hunter's report also noted that nearly half of the candidates used third-party Web sites such as Campaign Solutions and Campaign Contribution.com to process campaign donations. The problem is, he said, only 28 percent of the third-party processors have privacy policies.

Collecting private information such as name, address, telephone number and employment cannot be avoided if a person is donating at least $250 to a campaign, according to FEC regulations.

Still, the campaigns need to be forthright with how they plan on using the information aside from reporting purposes.

"E-commerce sites have learned that they need to post very clear privacy policies or else risk losing customers," Hunter said. "The same rule should apply to online politics. I think candidates will get the hang of it in the future."