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Critics Say ITunes Is Snooping

January 13, 2006|Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writer

The latest version of Apple Computer Inc.'s popular iTunes software scans a computer's digital music collection and recommends new songs to buy -- a feature blasted by privacy advocates as electronic snooping.

But futurists said Apple's MiniStore hinted at the sort of customized online experience that Internet boosters have been promising for nearly a decade. The so-called push technology uses the Internet to deliver news updates, traffic reports or music picks to a computer desktop.

"You have agents and expert systems that do very, very limited kinds of things and do them increasingly well," said Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, research director for the nonprofit Institute for the Future. "We can have a program that is tuned to a particular task, like analyzing the music that you listen to and combining that with other information to generate suggestions about what else you might be interested in."

The MiniStore and its spontaneous music recommendations illustrate how push technology is taking hold. The latest version of Apple's OS X operating system and Microsoft Corp.'s next iteration of the Windows operating system feature "widgets," compact information retrievers that deliver up-to-theminute weather and stock reports.

When users play a song in iTunes, the MiniStore software displays a list of albums that can be purchased by the same artist along the bottom of the window. It also shows what other listeners who like the song purchased.

A spokesman said Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple did not save or store any of the information used to create recommendations for the MiniStore. And users can disable the feature.

Jason Schultz, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group, criticized Apple's failure to disclose upfront what the company planned to do with the information it gathered.

"Apple should come clean," Schultz said. "They owe it to their user base. It's not going to kill their market. My question to them is, what are they afraid of? If this is something that is standard run of the mill, it should be transparent."

But a growing number of people don't find features like MiniStore offensive. Young adults who have come of age with Web cams, movie recommendations on Netflix and ads that pop up alongside Internet search queries find the applications helpful.

"Surveys that deal with Generation X and younger indicate these audiences love this stuff. They are not concerned at all with the privacy aspects of this stuff," said Rob Enderle, founder of Enderle Group, a technology consulting firm. "They just don't have the same sensibilities. As long as nobody uses that information against them, they don't have any problem as long as it makes the experience better."

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