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Why is Apple spying on me?

The Mac universe never fails to pounce on a controversy, or, as often happens, a perceived controversy. Last Thursday two sites, The Unofficial Apple Weblog and Ars Technica, published reports revealing – gasp! – that Apple embeds personal information in the new DRM-free songs the iTunes Store Plus started offering on Wednesday. Expressions of alarm and outrage followed on those sites and many others. Comments along the lines of, "Why is Apple tracking me?" and "My privacy rights are being violated" proliferated in forums and comment logs on the sites where the stories appeared.

One line of thinking suggested the purpose of the information – which apparently includes only the buyer's name and iTunes e-mail account – was to track pirates who would put the new restriction-free songs on file-sharing networks. That idea wavered on the realization that such information could easily be faked, and would prove an unreliable means of pursuing music thieves.

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The more ethical participants in these discussions also pointed out that even if tracking illegal file sharing were Apple's intent, law-biding citizens had nothing to fear and no cause for concern. The more paranoid participants worried the pirates would insert other people's names on songs they intended to share, leading to the prosecution of innocents.

Then a few astute folks realized that Apple did not just start embedding this information into DRM-free tracks this week. Apple has done this since the original iTunes launched in 2003. Anyone can use the "Get Info" command on any song purchased from the iTunes Store at any time and sure enough, the metadata listed under the "Summary" tab shows your name an e-mail account. I looked at the tracks from the first album I bought from iTunes, "Fever to Tell" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on May 25, 2003 and voila – my personal data.

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Far from easing worries, this discovery fueled more speculation on just what sort of nefarious plans did Apple have for this embedded data (sigh).

People should know by now that most retailers collect personal information on its customers, even if they do find it distasteful. Think about it. Have you ever bought anything in Radio Shack? By the time they finish asking for your address, phone number, shoe size and blood type, you're ready to drop that S-Video cable on the counter and walk out.

At first Apple stonewalled inquiries from the media about this issue, as is its habit, but it did drop one clue to the folks at Wired. Talk to Mike Gartenberg, an Apple spokesperson advised via e-mail. Gartenberg, an analyst with Jupiter Research who follows Apple, offered an entirely reasonable explanation for Apple's actions. As stated in the Wired piece:

The Wired article goes on to say (and I agree) that if embedding such data is indeed primarily for Apple's own use in serving its iTunes customers, perhaps Apple should bury and encrypt it. That way unfortunates who have their iPods stolen won't have their e-mail addresses exposed to thieves and attempts to fake the data to allow illegal file sharing will be much more challenging, if not impossible.

With all that said I hope we can put this brouhaha behind us and get back to pondering far more important issues, such as when the iTunes Store will make the Beatles back catalog available.

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