Embedded personal data creates storm in a teacup

The Baltimore Sun

The Mac universe never fails to pounce on a controversy, or, as often happens, a perceived controversy. Last Thursday two sites published reports revealing - gasp! - that Apple embeds your name and e-mail address in the new DRM-free songs being offered on the iTunes Store Plus. Expressions of alarm and outrage followed, along the lines of "Why is Apple tracking me?" and "My privacy rights are being violated."

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 Store launched in 2003. Anyone can use the Get Info command on any song purchased from the iTunes Store at any time. 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.

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

Apple referred questions on the embedding to Mike Gartenberg, an analyst with Jupiter Research who follows the company. Gartenberg attempted to explain the practice in an interview with Wired magazine's Web site. "The information could be used as a proof of purchase, or to facilitate upgrades (songs previously bought through iTunes can be upgraded to higher fidelity versions for an extra 30 cents). The identifier could help identify songs missing from albums (iTunes offers a "complete album" feature), as well as to thwart piracy, " he told Wired.

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 catalog available.

Read Dave Zeiler's Apple blog at www.baltimoresun.com/business/appleaday

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