After a reporter from the Associated Press (AP) discovered that Windows Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP) (or Windows Media 8, as it is sometimes called) is tracking the songs and movies customers play, Microsoft announced late yesterday that it will change its privacy statement to alert customers to the situation. But if this announcement sounds as though Microsoft itself is somehow tracking which music and movies its customers play, fear not: The situation isn't as bad as it sounds.
MPXP is a new Windows XP component; you can't download it for other Windows versions, which are stuck at WMP 7.1. One of MPXP's many new features is online DVD-information access, which lets the player identify DVD movies as you insert them and displays the correct title and chapter information. This feature is similar to one that many media players now use for audio CDs, and it's a welcome addition (Note that a third part owns and operates the online DVD database, not Microsoft; furthermore, user tracking isn't even possible from this database).
Because XP is a multi-user OS, each user on a given system can access numerous CD audio and DVD video titles. For each user, Microsoft stores a log file on the system that lists which media titles that user has played. The system uses this log file as a local cache, so that if you reinsert a movie it will access all the content information you previously downloaded. So the player doesn't have to download the same information again (this can also be important if you're offline, of course).
Privacy experts told the AP that if "investigators, divorce lawyers, snooping family members, marketing companies, or other interested parties" somehow gain access to the log file, they can use this feature to hurt users. You wouldn't want little Johnnie to know you stay up late watching bad 1970s horror movies, right? But the information is stored locally on your PC, doesn't get transmitted to any Microsoft servers, and isn't available remotely.
Interestingly, the AP says that the core issue is the fact that Microsoft's privacy statement--which few users have probably ever read
--specifically says that MPXP can download audio CD information and store it on the user's PC. But the privacy statement doesn't say anything about DVD movies, and the company says that this omission was accidental. So Microsoft will correct the privacy statement to include this information.
"We do not believe the DVD metadata-lookup process in MPXP presents a user privacy concern," wrote David Caulton, lead product manager for the Windows Digital Media Division, in a letter to a security expert the AP hired to investigate the problem. "However ... we realize we need to provide more specific information about the DVD metadata process within the MPXP privacy statement."
Given Microsoft's recent move to its "Trustworthy Computing" initiative, these same security experts say that MPXP doesn't meet the crucial goal of letting users control how the system uses their data. "This is a tool that could have been built with privacy in mind," Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology told the AP. This comment is a bit disingenuous, however, because Microsoft is still in the middle of a security-code review, and the company will probably change many small XP features in the days ahead.
In short, MPXP includes a feature that does exactly what most users want, and it doesn't violate their privacy or security in any way. If you'd like to disable the feature or learn more about how it works, you can read Microsoft's in-depth response to the AP security expert on the Web.