Friday, November 05, 1999

Getting real about online privacy

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Music has been perhaps the hottest application for computers during the past year. With the emergence of the MP3 format and related software — not to mention huge-capacity hard drives — millions of Americans are creating, recording, playing, storing and cataloging music with their PCs.

        Many of those PC users flinched Monday at the news that RealNetworks, maker of the popular (and free) RealJukebox software to play and record digital music files, has been secretly monitoring users' identities, musical habits and collections by scanning the hard drive and reporting back via the Internet. I know I flinched. Last weekend, I installed the new version of RealJukebox for a test drive and unwittingly told RealNetworks that my musical tastes are limited to — well, you don't want to know.

        A security expert in Massachusetts discovered what RealNetworks was up to. If misused, such data could open up an innocent user to false accusations of copyright infringement or other invasions of privacy.

        When confronted, RealNetworks officials said the purpose was to enable it to give each user personalized service — but then insisted it never stored that data. Huh?

        Soon, CEO Rob Glazer admitted the firm had “screwed up,” and Real posted a little software “patch” to block the tracking function. (If you don't want RealNetworks to know how many Barry Manilow tunes you have on your hard drive, surf to and get the patch.)

        Gathering user data isn't a problem in itself. It's part of the deal we now expect in the online world, especially where free software is concerned. Your consumer information is the coin of the realm on the Web. It can be sold and used to target you for products and services. Fair enough.

        Real's mistake was that it did not tell users on its Web site or in the software license what it was collecting, especially such extensive information taken surreptitiously from users' hard drives. It was a deliberate deception that some consumer advocates believe was illegal.

        But here's the kicker: RealNet- works is far from alone. “Real is just the tip of the iceberg,” ZDnet computer columnist Jesse Berst warned on Tuesday. “Literally hundreds of sites track what you do on the Web. Thousands more plan to.”

        We've seen several revelations this year, such as Intel's ID scheme in its Pentium III chip and Microsoft's Windows 98 data collection. Some go beyond just gathering your name, address, purchases and PC habits. Some could make you vulnerable to credit card fraud, hackers' stunts or worse.

        Online firms had better start playing it straight with consumers.

        “I think this will be a wake-up call to other companies in the industry,” market research executive Richard Doherty told the New York Times.

        Meanwhile, be careful what information you give out to use any software or online function. Take a tip from Agent Mulder: Trust no one.


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