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iTunes Genius and privacy

I'm not concerned that Apple collects anonymized information about my playing habits or asks for my credit card number--I get a lot more worried when they ask for my Social Security Number before I can buy an iPhone.

Earlier today, a colleague chided me for not highlighting some potential privacy issues in my post about Genius, the music recommendation feature in the latest version of Apple's iTunes application.

First, he didn't like the idea that he had to agree to send Apple information about his iTunes library from time to time. But as I briefly noted, this is how Genius works--it looks at the tens of millions of iTunes users out there to figure out who's playing what when, and matches up users with similar collections and playing habits. Apple claims that this information is anonymized, but even if it weren't, what's the big deal? There's nothing in my music collection or playing habits that's particularly sensitive. OK, maybe you don't need to know that I'm a secret fan of Miami Sound Machine's "Conga," but that knowledge won't let you clean out my bank account or deny me health insurance.

My colleague also didn't like the fact that Apple asked him to sign up for an iTunes account, and in that process asked him for his name (which he might have faked), e-mail address (that's what spamcatcher accounts are for), and a valid credit card number (aha!). I've had an iTunes account for so long that I'd forgotten how the sign-up process went, but going through Apple's iTunes Credit Card FAQ, I checked my credit card info and found that I hadn't entered any. That's because I used a gift card code to sign up, an option that the FAQ says still exists today.

I know why Apple requires an iTunes account for Genius: if Genius recommends a song from the iTunes Store, Apple doesn't want to interrupt your potential impulse buy by making you enter a credit card number at that time. It's kind of like a music subscription service...only with a per-download charge model. (Don't get carried away.)

But the iTunes requirement and sign-up screens made my colleague feel like Apple was asking too much for what he was getting in return. Fair enough--I usually enter fake names and e-mails for newspaper sites that require free registration, and I don't give any information at all to certain Web sites (like Russian MP3 download sites). We all have different comfort levels.

I was actually a lot more concerned when the clerk at the Apple Store asked me for my Social Security number when I was buying an iPhone. This is standard practice for all cell phone providers--they're essentially forwarding you a lot of value (a phone subsidy and a month of service before your first payment), so they need to run a credit check. What bothers me is the fact that a government ID number has become a universal identification number for all sorts of private-sector entities that have no relationship with my tax bill--insurance companies, landlords, cell phone providers, the works. Having all that data available with one number is a boon for identity thieves.

But, you know, I wanted that iPhone. The clerk let me enter it on the screen myself while he looked away, so he couldn't have memorized it and used it to steal my identity. But he mentioned that he'd lost two sales to people slightly more paranoid than me when the SSN requirement came up.

Getting back to Genius: I still like it. A lot. But apparently the latest iTunes update, 8.0.1, is causing some users to have iPhone syncing problems, so proceed with caution.