Frank Beacham /
07.11.2007
Apple’s iTunes ‘Privacy’ Transcends Music Piracy
I get steamed over willful, blatant invasions of my personal privacy. That’s why I’m so unhappy right now with Apple, my favorite computer company.

Privacy is one of those issues that tend to separate old codgers like myself from the children of the digital era. Most young people tell me to forget about it—the concept of personal privacy is long dead and who cares anyway?

As a member of the Vietnam-Nixon-Watergate-Plumbers-Pentagon Papers generation, I’ve witnessed what can happen when one’s personal privacy clashes with an abuse of power. It’s a sordid story—one that destroyed lives.

Since history always repeats itself, I’m keenly aware when corporations and the government want to know more about me than they have a right to know. In the name of music piracy (or whatever), Apple has—in my opinion—crossed that line by secretly embedding my name and e-mail address into every music file I purchase at their iTunes Music store.

It didn’t much matter when those downloaded audio tracks were copyright-protected with DRM technology. Each file was sold with the clear understanding that it was linked to the purchaser and was crippled from working beyond a few designated hardware components.

For this reason, I bought few of those tracks from the iTunes store, preferring to purchase better-sounding DRM-free commercial compact discs to “rip” files for use on my iPod.

Then, with much fanfare, Apple CEO Steve Jobs broke the bonds of DRM, offering music downloads from EMI with no copy protection. At the same time, he upped the bit-rate for better audio fidelity and raised the price from 99 cents to $1.29 per track.


(click thumbnail)
A text reader reveals the writer’s name embedded in an iTunes Plus file of a Bonnie Raitt recording.
Fair enough deal, I thought. That is until I learned that Apple had made a secret pact with the devil. Embedded in that “iTunes Plus” music file is my name and e-mail address. It’s not encrypted, so anyone with a simple text reader can see it.

I was furious and very disappointed in Steve Jobs. So were others. But a sizable group thought it was just fine. The issue opened a cultural fissure and resulted in a firestorm of debate on Internet forums.

THE DEBATE

One side says “so what”—it doesn’t matter unless you’re a music pirate illegally distributing music to others over the Internet. Another side says the embedded data is OK, but should be encrypted because it creates a security risk.

I say it shouldn’t be there at all, especially without full disclosure of why and how Apple intends to use it. This is especially important when we have unscrupulous recording industry organizations like the RIAA out there suing everyone with whom they have a disagreement. (Some forget that the RIAA does not make law and much of what they call illegal is only their opinion or desire.)

Before we go any further, let me emphasize that I’m not a music pirate nor do I support helping those that are. I’m a writer and producer and need copyright protection to enable my own profession.

However, I resent the artificial barriers some content creators and owners selfishly erect that would kill the long-held axioms of fair use, and—essential to the arts—the concept described by Pete Seeger as the “folk process.”

The free flow of cultural information, handed down from generation to generation, is basic to the creation of art. Without the “folk process” we wouldn’t have the great body of songs written by Bob Dylan or the iconic images of photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Gordon Parks. Great art is not created in a vacuum.

Media corporations want to own and control every word, image and artistic concept in our culture. That quest for cultural ownership is a major subtext of this escalating war over what they consider their intellectual property.

Since digital technology allows the easy replication of art, our personal electronic devices have become the new battleground in this war. The manipulation of this technology, and with it an invasion of personal privacy, is the backdrop to the iTunes story.

Just as with a book, CD or video that I may legally purchase, I expect to have the freedom to use it as I see fit. That includes loaning it to a friend or exposing it to others in a social situation. Short of mass re-producing it and selling it to others on the open market, my usage rights should be limited in no way. If the day comes when I can no longer do that, I will not buy the media.

THE SOLUTION: FISSION

At the time this column was written, Apple had refused all public comment on the iTunes privacy issue. That’s really a lousy mistake for such a normally classy company.

But, as one could have easily predicted, it didn’t take long for a solution to appear that effectively “cleans” the name and address of the purchaser from the metadata in DRM-free iTunes Plus songs.

It’s a Macintosh application from Rogue Amoeba called “Fission.” (Sorry, no version for Windows.) Ironically, the software was on the market long before the iTunes controversy erupted.

Quite simply, it allows users to copy, paste, trim, and split compressed audio files. It works with mono and stereo files in MP3, AAC, Apple Lossless and AIFF formats.

We wrote Rogue Amoeba to make sure Fission actually cleans iTunes files without degrading audio quality. A quick response came from Paul Kafasis, the company’s CEO.

Paul explained that the application never re-encodes, unless the user tells it to. Therefore, any compressed file run through it takes no quality hit. iTunes files are cleaned because the software ignores metadata tags it doesn’t understand. In this case, since Apple’s information is not standard for AAC encoding, the information is stripped from the processed version.

To test Fission, we purchased an iTunes Plus version of Bonnie Raitt’s “The Road’s My Middle Name.” Using a text reader, we found our embedded name and e-mail address. As claimed, a quick pass through Fission removed the data. Returned to iTunes, the track played perfectly.

“We don’t have any desire to aid piracy, but helping users anonymize their files isn’t by definition a bad thing,” Paul wrote in his e-mail. “As far as advertising the feature goes, however, I don’t think we’ll be doing that. Feel free to tell anyone you like, but this is a fine line, and we don’t wish to assist in music piracy.”

We’re not trying to assist music pirates, either. We simply want media companies to be upfront and honest about their tactics. Clear, intelligent national policies as to what constitutes fair use of legally purchased media are sorely needed. Unfortunately, such clarity is not on the horizon.

Until that day comes, users of digital media should not let a group of corporations represented by the RIAA and their congressional supporters decide what is and is not proper policy. It’s not their decision.

Make no mistake: We’re in a significant culture war, the stakes are very high, and personal privacy now matters more than ever.


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