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RealNetworks puts a patch on privacy concerns

The company says it will cease collecting some personal information from Net music listeners and will disable a feature in its software that could have been used to track users.

Facing a barrage of privacy concerns, RealNetworks said today that it will cease collecting some personal information from Net music listeners and will disable a feature in its software that could have been used to track users.

RealNetworks already had quietly changed its privacy policy this weekend to disclose the controversial practice of monitoring RealJukebox users through unique identification numbers assigned to its software. The practice was reportedly discovered by Richard Smith, a Massachusetts-based independent security consultant, who had examined information generated from the RealJukebox software, as first reported in this morning's editions of the New York Times.

Amid privacy concerns, RealNetworks has released a patch to let its 12 million RealJukebox users block the transmission of some of their personal data and music-listening habits to the company, such as the tracks they collect.

In addition, RealNetworks is disabling a "Globally Unique Identifier" (GUID) that was assigned to its RealJukebox software when users downloaded it to copy or play digital music via their computers.

"Obviously there were concerns over this; we take the privacy of our consumers extremely seriously, and we wanted to be responsive and decisive rather than waiting for a full internal review," Tom Frank, the company's chief operating officer, said today.

Privacy advocates warned that the user IDs could have been used to build profiles on Net users, combining their surfing habits with personal information such as the home addresses and credit card numbers gathered by RealNetworks in its licensing agreement with RealJukebox users.

Real's revised privacy policy stated that the identifier would be used "to understand the interests and needs of our users so that we can offer valuable personalized services such as customized RealPlayer channels" and to "monitor the growth of the number of users of our products and to predict and plan for future capacity needs."

RealNetworks contended today that it was not using the identifier to track unique users.

"It was intended for aggregate purposes only," Frank said.

The company also apologized for its inadequate data-collection policy, which was updated this weekend to disclose the GUID and its uses.

"We made a mistake in not being clear enough to our users about what kinds of data was being generated and transmitted by the use of RealJukebox," Rob Glaser, RealNetworks' chief executive, said in a statement.

RealNetworks said it will review all of its data-collection and privacy practices and will bring in outside experts to confirm that it is following its posted policies.

In the meantime, the privacy seal program Truste, which monitors whether its licensees are in compliance with their data-collection policies, said today that it will investigate RealNetworks' practices.

Truste could revoke RealNetworks' seal or file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. But observers say that is unlikely considering RealNetworks' scramble today to remedy the problem.

In a case involving a Microsoft Hotmail security hole, Truste and the software giant commissioned an auditor to review Microsoft's fixes, but the company was not reprimanded by the voluntary program.

"This will be just another illustration of how the Truste seal isn't worth the pixels it's printed on," said Jason Catlett, founder of Junkbusters, a clearinghouse for privacy-protection measures.

But Truste says it's on the case.

"We're going to investigate it thoroughly," said Dave Steer, Truste's communications manager.