I’m tracking the White House with persistent cookies

ProPublic reported this morning that WhiteHouse.gov is — albeit accidentally — using a new method for tracking individual visitors to the website. This reminded me that for the last 6 months I’ve been tracking the White House.


On Jan 17 the President made his first major speech regarding reforms to the NSA’s massive surveillance programs revealed last year. I thought that morning that he would announce new mandatory data retention policies for internet and telephone service providers. He didn’t. But by the time the speech began I had already started tracking the White House.

About 5% of traffic to my website GovTrack.us comes from the government. Most IP addresses are tied to the major broadband providers like Verizon, Comcast, and so on. But some government IP addresses come from special IP address blocks labeled specifically for the office that reserved them.

Three blocks were of interest to me: the blocks for the Executive Office of the President (“EOP”, about 60 page views on GovTrack per day), the United States Senate (about 300 page views/day), and the House of Representatives (about 600 page views/day). I don’t know where the computers are that have these IP addresses, but I expect that EOP IP addresses would include White House, West Wing, and perhaps the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (more on what the EOP is). The House and Senate IP addresses are used in the Capitol and the seven congressional office buildings, including in non-political offices and the guest WiFi network, to the best of my knowledge.

On Jan 17 I began uniquely identifying the users of these IP blocks by placing a persistent cookie with a unique identifier in their web browsers when they visited GovTrack and logging each of those page views. Persistent cookies get lost when users clear their browser cookies, but it’s a useful first approximation to identifying users.

Summary Results

So far, 324,705 hits on GovTrack have been logged from 19,131 unique tracking cookies:

Network Hits Uniques
EOP 12,512 1,161
Senate 92,917 7,572
House 219,276 10,771

(Interestingly, 373 unique cookies appeared on more than one of the three networks — probably a laptop that moved from one building to another.)

The longest recorded session is for one tracking cookie on the House network that made 1,590 page views almost all on Feb 21, but also in January and March, to pages for various representatives. My guess is this was a lobbyist on the guest wifi doing research before a meeting.

From the EOP, the longest recorded session is 901 page views between March 18 and July 18. This user mostly looked at my congressional district maps and a few bills on a variety of subjects. There was no discernible pattern to it, except that this person is probably responsible for looking up the congressional districts of people. Maybe the person processes incoming mail to the President.

This is all I’ll look into right now, but I may post more about it if I find anything interesting.

I’d be glad to share the data on request.

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