Apple Computer has come under fire because the new version of its iTunes music software is able to monitor listening habits. The iTunes software update, which was issued on January 10, incorporates a feature that recommends songs according to the tracks you play.
Critics say that Apple needs to be more transparent about user data that is being collected, especially because the iTunes song recommendations use unique identifiers for a computer and an iTunes account.
In Internet postings, bloggers are warning about the data that iTunes passes back to Apple, particularly the data being transmitted to Apple that enables it to make song recommendations and uniquely identify a computer and an iTunes account.
Apple claims, however, that it does not retain any data that is gathered after iTunes has made song recommendations.
The iTunes update issued on January 10 incorporates a new element, called MiniStore, which is the feature that recommends tracks to purchase. MiniStore searches for similar tracks when you click on a tune in a playlist. The feature appears in the main iTunes window and highlights music on the iTunes music store on the basis of the songs you have selected in iTunes.
Since the controversy occurred, Apple has posted information on its support Web site about how to turn MiniStore off. The posting indicates that when MiniStore is hidden by the user, data about songs selected in the user’s iTunes library is not sent to the iTunes music store.
“Apple’s statements on the matter have satisfied me that it isn’t doing anything particularly invasive,” Yankee Group analyst Andrew Jaquith said. “It is making song recommendations based on what you’re playing at the moment. This happens only when the MiniStore feature is open, and Apple says it isn’t keeping any of the data it collects.”
But Jaquith said he was troubled that Apple wasn’t more forthcoming about this.
“It should have made it clear to users about this new ‘feature’ when it upgraded iTunes,” he said. “And it should provide an explicit option to turn it off, for example in the iTunes ‘preferences’ panel. We live in an era where yesterday’s ‘opt out’ assumptions no longer apply. Customers are getting tired of software that ‘phones home’ without their explicit consent.”
Forrester Research analyst Laura Koetzle also expressed dissatisfaction with Apple’s response to the row over iTunes user privacy. “This isn’t a disaster, because users can easily turn off both the MiniStore ‘feature’ and iTunes’ communications with Apple,” she said.
However, Apple should have informed the consumer in its licensing agreement, or through another mechanism, about the personal data-sharing that the MiniStore does, Koetzle said.
“It’s important that Apple address this issue explicitly, because otherwise it sets a poor precedent for future use of customer data by iTunes and Apple,” she said.