iTunes and Privacy Issues

Posted on January 16, 2006

The BBC reports on the iTunes controversy: bloggers discovered that a feature on iTunes was tracking user information without disclosing the info to users.
The row arose following the update to the iTunes software released by Apple on 10 January. The new version includes a MiniStore feature that recommends tracks to buy similar to those a user is listening to. MiniStore looks for similar tracks when a user clicks on a tune in a playlist. It even makes recommendations about songs that were not bought via the hugely popular online music store. iTunes sends data about the song selected in your library to the iTunes Music Store to provide relevant recommendations. When the MiniStore is hidden, this data is not sent to the iTunes Music Store.

Soon after the update was released, blogger Marc Garrett wrote a journal entry about MiniStore and the data it passes back to Apple. Further work by other bloggers such as Kirk McElhearn found that the data being sent back to Apple to make the recommendations included artist, title, genre as well as unique identifiers for a computer and iTunes account.

Privacy advocates complained that Apple had not done enough to warn people about the information that was being collected, nor what was being done with the collected data. By contrast Apple does mention in the licence agreement for iTunes that it contacts the Gracenote music database to work out which album is being played via the program. "Apple should be clear about its information gathering practices," wrote Mr Garrett on his blog.

Apple said in response to a request for comment: "Apple does not save or store any information used to create recommendations for the MiniStore". On its support website, the company has posted and updated information about how to turn the MiniStore feature off. Information on the page has been updated since the row about iTunes blew up. "iTunes sends data about the song selected in your library to the iTunes Music Store to provide relevant recommendations," says the entry on its support website. "When the MiniStore is hidden, this data is not sent to the iTunes Music Store." Digital detective work by bloggers has confirmed that no data is passed to Apple when MiniStore is turned off.
The bottom line is that every service that recommends personalized products to you is tracking your preferences. We have no problem with that so long as everything is disclosed to the customer: otherwise, Amazon.com would have trouble recommending cool new books and CDs to us. But the problem arises when the company does something else with the information it has collected: like sell it to a third party. And that we do have a problem with.