Is RealNetworks’ Privacy Violation The Tip Of The Iceberg?

Earlier this week, when RealNetworks, Inc. admitted that its software had been secretly gathering and transmitting personal information about consumers’ listening habits, the company gave privacy advocates a big bone to chew on.

Even though the Seattle, Washington-based company said Tuesday that it would issue a software patch for users of its RealJukebox program to block it from sending back personal data to the company, the damage had already been done.

The company’s free version of RealJukebox, which has about 13.5 million registered users, prompts new users to give their names and e-mail addresses before they are assigned an identifying number.

Tracking Copyright Infringement?

While some industry experts speculate that such tracking could have made it possible for RealNetworks to identify users who were infringing upon music copyrights, a RealNetworks spokesman claimed that the company was only seeking an accurate count of the number of people who were using its product.

Nonetheless, such privacy advocates as TRUSTe and the Electronic Frontier Foundation both expressed concern over RealNetworks’ obvious violation of users’ privacy.

Not Alone

Still, RealNetworks is not the only Internet music company that has gathered such data from its users. MusicMatch, Inc. software collects similar information, but only after getting the user’s permission.

As soon as I heard the news, I simply uninstalled the recently-downloaded RealJukebox software from my hard drive. While RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser admitted in published reports that his company screwed up and is trying to remedy the situation, that is not a good enough explanation for me.

No Excuse For Spying

In an age where technology intrusions can go undetected by average consumers, companies have an obligation to respect consumers’ privacy.

This problem is the one potential chink in e-commerce’s armor.

I am sick and tired of listening to wide-eyed tech-heads that have just invented some new and improved profiling software that can count the teeth in a user’s mouth. These amoral geniuses often seem to get so caught up in the fact that their technology can accurately delineate users, they lose sight of the issue of consent.

If RealNetworks had asked me if they could monitor my taste in downloaded music, I would have given them an emphatic “no.”

Instead, they decided to become voyeurs and spy on me as well as millions of others.

I don’t know about you, but I will never be able to trust them enough to do business with them again.

Additionally, RealNetworks’ admission makes me wonder how many other privacy violations are being perpetrated against unknowing users by other unscrupulous companies.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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