• The Low-Down on the Great iTunes Conspiracy

    January 21st, 2006

    You know that the Mac platform is supposed to be less vulnerable to spyware and viruses, and this is one of the reasons why more and more Windows users are switching. Sure, there’s that iPod halo effect, but that’s simply another factor. I’m also sure that Apple understands this full well, and also that we live in a highly paranoid society.

    World politics aside, there’s the fact that those malware epidemics have affected millions and pervades our mind sets. So much so that 20% of the Mac users responding to a recent survey by Consumer Reports magazine claimed to have been affected by a virus. This in spite of the fact that, except for some proofs of concept, there are no known Mac OS viruses.

    So what was Apple thinking when it released iTunes 6.0.2? Officially little was said about the new features, until you discovered the presence of a Mini Store at the bottom of the iTunes window. Click on a song, and it would suggest tunes from the same artist or genre in that tiny window. Sure, a smart sales tool, but then some folks realized that, in order to provide those suggestions, information about what you clicked, when you clicked it, had to be sent back to Apple.

    Some people, including Mac writer Kirk McElhearn, decided to actually look at the data being sent back to Apple, and found that it also included your Apple ID. That’s the user name and password you create when you buy a product or service from Apple, such as subscribing to .Mac or placing an order with the music store.

    The news spread like wildfire. Apple was collecting data based on your clicks in the iTunes window, which some regarded as possible spyware. It was delivering ads based on that selection, which delivered possible adware. Just what was going on here?

    There was no official response, at least right away, except for an email to Macworld writer Rob Griffiths that Apple was simply using the data to make recommendations in the Mini Store and the data was then discarded. All right, that doesn’t seem quite so bad and, in fact, it’s similar to what happens when you browse through the offerings at Amazon. Since Apple licenses its 1-click ordering technology from Amazon, it’s clear where they probably got the idea.

    Now I can see why Apple did this, and it’s not to mine information from you. It seems quite innocent, in fact. Someone may have thought it would be a really neat idea, without considering the conspiracy theories that would arise once folks began to consider what Apple was actually doing. Worse, there was nothing in the end user license to give Apple the right to read your clicks. Sure, you could easily shut down the Mini Store and halt the data transfer. But the “off” button wasn’t obvious unless you looked for it.

    So what happened next? Well, if you have launched iTunes 6.0.2 in the last couple of days, you’ll notice that things have changed. The Mini Store is off by default, and there’s a clearly labeled paragraph explaining what it’s all about, along with instructions on how to turn it on or shut it down once again. This is, of course, what Apple should have done originally, but they are to be commended for recognizing your concerns and doing the right thing.

    But you have to wonder: There was no official update to the offending version of iTunes. Just how did Apple accomplish this magic? Well, it so happens that iTunes is as much a jukebox application as a Web browser. It uses the same WebKit as the Safari browser to display HTML, but it is designed to access just one site, and that’s the iTunes Music Store. So all Apple developers had to do was make a “back end” change and it would propagate to all users of the current version of the application, on both the Mac and Windows platforms. That’s a whole lot easier than having to recode a new version of the application and make it available for download, and it has the side effect of being 100% successful. After all, not everyone checks for updated software, nor bothers to retrieve it even if it’s available.

    But what about that Apple ID. In this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I asked McElhearn about it, and he said you could actually alter that data in the iTunes cookie file and it would make no difference in how the program interacted with the Mini Store. Nothing to worry about.

    Oh yes, there is one other feature that I ought to mention in recent versions of iTunes, or rather, the lack of a feature. You can no longer turn off the option to allow iTunes to initiate an Internet connection when it needs to retrieve information, such as the Gracenote CDDB database for artist and track information. Just as Apple has removed the built-in modem from its new products, they are apparently assuming that you and I all have broadband connections and don’t need dial-up.

    So if you’re using iTunes, and you suddenly hear those beeps and chirps from your modem, this is the reason why. Now some day Apple will be correct. With new wireless broadband and other emerging technologies, almost everyone in the civilized world will have broadband. Apple is clearly seeing what the future will bring, and, no, there are no conspiracies involved.

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