Blog Post

iTunes Knows Where You Live (And It’s Going To Hunt You Down)

My post-MWSF 2006 elation didn’t last long. Within a couple of hours of the PowerBook…MacBook Pro…ugh…announcement, I – like many others, both of the Mac faithful and not – was lamenting on Steve’s choice of name. It really does suck. I want to dwell on it, but I sense that to do so would be at the very least pointless and unproductive.

Some have already moved on to discussions new. Over on Slashdot, that perennial favourite of mine, the uptight and the hopeless are busy discussing whether iTunes is malware, spyware or bad just because. The issue centres on the new MiniStore feature that Apple have added to iTunes 6.0.2, released yesterday, and how it knows what albums and artists to show you in this little pane at the bottom of the window.

iTunes Ministore

Cory Doctorow has, as is customary, has weighed in on this with a reactionary piece and (at the moment), no less than seven updates, as he corrects the misinformation disseminated in his original post. Whenever I read Doctorow, I am always left thinking that if he hates his Mac so much, why doesn’t he just dump it and use Linux?

It may be a cultural thing, although I think that’s just a cheap excuse that I am attempting to use to justify my position on the whole issue, but I don’t get this whole paranoia about companies knowing what music I like, what food I often buy or which authors I dig. So, iTunes knows I like Steely Dan. So what? What are they going to do with that information? Perhaps I am simply being naïve, but can someone honestly tell me what nefarious purpose could Apple have in mind – what sinister ulterior motive could Apple possibly have – making use of the knowledge that I like Steely Dan? Please. Tell me. I genuinely want to know.

Because, in fact, as this poster articulates on Slashdot, in some circumstances, you’d call it good customer service. When as soon as I walk into my local the bartender prepares a pint of Guinness for me, I call that good service. I certainly don’t bitch at him and accuse him of violating my sacred privacy.

One could be excused for considering Apple a little naïve in the way they have handled this, given the often oh-so-reactionary nature of the blogosphere with regard to such issues. Perhaps it would have been better to make the MiniStore opt-in by default, or have a little notice pop up to tell people about the MiniStore and allay any privacy concerns. Doctorow would have flown off the handle anyway, and so probably would have Slashdot, but it would have helped.

For my part, I certainly had no trouble turning it off (View…Hide MiniStore, or click the button at the bottom of the iTunes window) – it took me all of 5-10 seconds – but others have complained that it was far too difficult, something which I find a little hard to believe. Still, perhaps Apple considers these reactionaries’ influence to be limited in the face of its army of iPod-brandishing iTunes-loving loyalists.

In any case, my money’s on it becoming an opt-in feature in iTunes 6.0.3/7.0. They will probably also reduce the size too – as it stands, it takes up far too much space on my screen. As always, we shall see.

(Update: Today’s news has it that in fact Apple did have a Knowledge Base article about the MiniStore available the day iTunes 6.0.2 was released. It would have been helpful, however, to have made access to this article a little easier.

In any case, the important thing is the news – as I suspected – that Apple does not in fact do anything with this information – it simply discards it. As I said in this post, I cannot understand what use the knowledge that I like the funky jazz-rock stylings of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker is to Apple. It appears that they agree.)

25 Responses to “iTunes Knows Where You Live (And It’s Going To Hunt You Down)”

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  2. MacBook Pro? Ehh… could’ve been worse. Apple Notepower 4512e or some other PC-like name perhaps?

    As for the Mini-Store. When I saw it I thought “Crap, man…” then I turned it off. I’m rather heavily with Gareth on this… who cares? What are they going to do with the knowledge that I played “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love” from Chicago 18 four times in the last 3 days?

    Try to sell me Chicago MP3s?

    God save us from that fate worse than death.

  3. You know, many people are complaining about the name of the MacBook Pro. I, like many other people, really like this change. I mean, tell me, what would they have called it this time that would be any beter than what it is called now.

    Stop complaining and get used to it, get accustomed to change (especially those of you who are having a hard time understanding apple’s change towards intel). Most importantly, there will be a lot of change this year. so get ready.

  4. The paranoid objections, I think, rely in the slippery-slope argument, which anyone who’s taken a logic class will tell you is a poor argument.

    However, I’ll agree from a personal standpoint that it’s annoying and ugly, and made me like itunes a bit less than I used to. And the fact that the ministore does collect this information without telling me makes me trust Apple a bit less.

    So there are real consequences.

  5. Emilio Rodriguez

    This is a very interesting issue. I was wondering if Hotrecorder for Media (this software which enables you to play iTunes on any portable player), does also help you dodge Apple’s big brother attitude? Does anyone know?

  6. Gareth, I’m not sure who’s screaming bloody murder; certainly it’s not me. I’m asking — hold your water, this is panicky tinfoil hat time — that Apple disclose its practices. If it shares information with third party marketing firms I want to know about it.

  7. Since1968,

    Fair point, but consider this:

    Apple is well aware that there has been something of a reaction to this (amongst, at least, the blogosphere. Most others don’t care). Apple is also well aware that people now believe the problem has been solved, on account of this assertion.

    It would, therefore, be incredibly bad PR if it were to be subsquently discovered that they – or a third party facilitated by them, i.e. Omniture – were in fact collecting data and making some use of it. They might point to the fact that they had made no official statement, but one could readily submit that they made no statement to the contrary when the news went round that they were not collecting data.

    In any case, foolish as this inclusion rather was, the whole argument is rather academic anyway, as a simple View…Hide MiniStore solves your problem.

    It strikes me that if privacy advocates spent less time pursuing matters quite so trivial, they might gain a little more credibility amongst the world at large. If I ran around here screaming bloody murder and saying that some big corporation was “collecting data on us”, people would grunt, say “Oh, so what’s new…”, and move on.

  8. Gareth, one thing that surprises me is how quickly people, including you, have accepted Apple’s anonymously sourced assertion that they don’t collect data.

    If you run ethereal, you know that iTunes sends a stream of your data not only to Apple but also to servers run by Omniture, which is — wait for it — a data collection service. This isn’t really seriously contested by anyone who’s looked at the TCP and HTTP packets.

    What’s still up for debate is whether Omniture is able to uniquely identify you based on the data it receives from iTunes.

  9. It seems alot like targetted demographic advertising that you see on free to air television. ie. If you watch men’s sport, you’ll see beer, car and titty commercials. targetted to what yr watching. The MiniStore just targets more accurately.

    I personally don’t like it, like most targetted advertising. It’s not offering services, it’s trying to create a revenue source that doesn’t necessarily exist. trying to create a need and fulfill it all in on hit.

  10. Andrew Creek

    Chris: Yeah man its in my personal library. Personally if I am interested in what Apple is suggesting I buy based on past purchases I look in the itms section that holds that information.

    When I go to a gas station I am pressured to buy things from advertisments on the pump, in the store windows, on the store floor, walls, ceilings, and bathrooms. My home used to be a relatively safe place from advertisments.

    How long until my computer wakes up from the screen saver and yells across the room to let me know that a new cd is available for purchase.

    This is the kind of thing that starts off innocent in the guise of a company trying to convenience a client but I think its a much more sinister invasion of privacy that will only expand if given the chance.

  11. I got it in the library view as well. But you can turn it off by clicking the fourth-from-right button at the bottom of the window.

    I really, really don’t think this matters. There’s privacy concern and there’s paranoia. (Though I would like to see it turned off by default, just because most of the time it’s a waste of space, though I think occasionally it’d be really cool to have similar things suggested. But for those times, I could click the button.)

  12. Jason Terhorst

    Just wait and see… they’ll call it a “MacMac”. This is even funnier if you’ve seen the movie “Mars Attacks!”. Just imagine the aliens shouting “Mac Mac!” That’s it… Apple’s secretly plotting with the Martians! Oh, no! This is just the beginning!

  13. Andrew Creek

    I turn on iTunes to play some of my music and I am greeted by a banner ad please its bs. To me thats an invasion of personal space. I dont like it online and I absolutely hate it in my music player.

    If I opened photoshop and saw a frickin google adsense my next move would be an attempt to blow up the world.

    I’m sick of un-welcomed intrusions.

    Also I would mention that if you go into user pref’s and disable itms hit ok then go back into pref’s and enable it. The itms banner ad will go away and you can access itms the way you used to be able to.

    Apple is quickly earning itself a spot in hell if you ask me.

  14. Oh please… If the branding was going from 10 year old “MacBook” to brand new “Powerbook” you’d all be screaming about the crappy new “Power” book name. “It’s a Macbook, it’s a Macbook” etc…

    You’ll get used to it, it ain’t that bad. (Just wait for the PowerMac name change!) ;o)

  15. Trust me, if had a feature which would allow you to enter all the items, cd’s, movies and books you already own, there would be a system that would guess and try to market you things similar to ones who potentially interest you. Can’t really blame them.

  16. i guess the main difference between what iTunes is doing and what Amazon is doing with its suggestion engine is that iTunes’s process is a hybrid client-server model, versus Amazon’s web-based-only model.

    If you think about it, any time you click on anything on Amazon, you bet your life Amazon records what you just did, and will use it to suggest things to you later-on. It’s surprised me quite … a few … times. HEH.

    Instead of a web-based interface, Apple uses iTunes to transmit your song browsing behavior back to Apple. But not just songs on their store i guess. Songs you already own.

    I guess a few key differences are that Apple is gaining information from your listening to songs you didn’t necessarily buy from Apple, or want Apple to know about. Apple is gaining information from goods you already own.

    Versus Amazon gains information mainly from your interacting with their store. And if you interact with their store, chances are these are products you don’t already own.

    When you’re on Amazon, you’re consciously in a shopping mode, the same way you enter your favorite bar, you’re about to shop for a beer. In those scenarios, a measure of predictive customer service is fairly comfortably expected.

    In the case of iTunes, you may actually not be shopping for anything when using iTunes. You’re just listening to songs while interacting with your own private library. You’re very likely NOT in a shopping mood. Yet Apple is gaining taste-related information from you, as you peruse their product.

    I don’t personally give a crap or find that invasive. It doesn’t seem like Apple is going out of its way to hide this behavior. Apple shows you suggestions in a Mini-Shop, it’s fairly obvious to anyone that these suggestions are related to what you’re listening. That’s not what spyware does, though your average definition of what spyware is may vary. Spyware is typically useless to the end-user, often harmful.

    It would have probably been of a better taste to ostensibly warn users *first*.

  17. Jason Terhorst

    What I don’t understand is why people freak out about this particular thing, when Apple has already done this – when you purchase songs, the music store suggests other songs that you might like on the front page. And their assumptions may not be correct. When I was running LittleSnitch and iTunes with the Mini Store, it seems to do everything client side.

    People are being weird and freaking out about this, when they should be more worried about the crappy specs and price of the — *gakk* — “MacBook Pro”. Gahhh! I can’t do this anymore! It’s a Powerbook, all right?! Powerbook!