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A Real Mess

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Your personal computer may not be as personal as you think. On Nov. 1, Richard Smith, a Brookline, Mass.-based Net-security watchdog, made headlines by exposing something shady within the RealJukebox, an MP3 music player that more than 13.5 million people have downloaded since its spring launch. It seems that parent company RealNetworks has been using the software to track data about RealJukebox users—what kind of music they like, how many songs are stored on their hard drives, what kind of files the tunes are formatted in—and then create profiles of them to spot demographic trends. Not a word of this was mentioned in the privacy agreement posted on RealNetworks’ website.

The company was quick to react: Within a day, it had provided a downloadable fix (http://www.real.com) enabling users to prevent any info tracking. ”That we put a patch up so quickly indicates how seriously we take privacy,” says RealNetworks COO Thomas Franks. But judging by the outrage of privacy groups, serious PR damage has been done—and legal damages may be in the offing: Three consumer class-action suits have been filed. Jason Catlett, president of New Jersey-based Junkbusters, sees Orwellian undertones: ”Some songs have lyrics that…are regarded as obscene and maybe even illegal. The prospect of surveillance of what we listen to is actually a very fundamental threat to the liberties Americans hold dear.” Just another reason to download that MP3 of Garbage’s ”I Think I’m Paranoid.”

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