Editorial: More Needless Hysteria

Ohmygod! Did you hear? Microsoft's new version of its popular Media Player software creates a list of the digital songs and movies each computer user has played.

And according to the Associated Press, which broke the story, the data is a “potential treasure trove for marketing companies.”

Never mind that the term “marketing company” is redundant: a treasure trove?

Useful, certainly. And mainly to marketers of entertainment-related stuff. But the information is certainly not a treasure trove for marketers.

What's more, the feature is not a negative one.

No exaggeration, easily the last 10 purchases I have made at Amazon.com were of books I didn't know existed and fairly obscure music from the '70s that I had forgotten about, all because Amazon.com tracks my purchases and makes recommendations accordingly.

Meanwhile, the AP story was typically alarmist.

“As part of downloading information about songs and movies from the Web site, the program also transmits an identifier number unique to each user on the computer. That creates the possibility that user habits could be tracked and sold,” the report said.

“Privacy experts said they feared the log file could be used by investigators, divorce lawyers, snooping family members, marketing companies and others interested in learning about a person's entertainment habits.”

First, notice it's “privacy experts,” not advocates. Apparently, if one believes that the free flow of information is necessary for free markets, one isn't a privacy expert.

In any case, what those so-called experts contend is true. The information collected in those log files potentially can be used by all of the above.

But so can behavior recorded by a camera, or paper taken from bags left out on garbage night, not to mention credit card and phone records. Anything you do online or offline can be tracked if someone wants to do so badly enough.

Also, the AP report tries to position a DVD-listing feature as a new threat.

“Downloading CD information such as the disc name and track list is a common practice used by almost every computer CD player. But downloading DVD information is new, and has the potential to be sensitive especially in the case of racy or violent movies,” the report said. Oh, and somehow a list of racy or violent music is less sensitive.

Computers are meant to record things. If they don't, they're useless.

Here's what should be an obvious tip: If you do something on a computer, assume that if someone wants to, they can find out about it.

If you come under police scrutiny, and they get a warrant, they can use your computer to track its use.

One would have to be illiterate not to know that by now.

The Internet, like any public place, has good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods. If you find yourself accidentally on an offensive Web site, back out. If your husband or wife finds out about this accidental Web site visit and takes some action based on it, your spouse's irrational behavior poses a far greater threat to your well-being than any computer file.

If, as privacy advocates contend may happen in some Orwellian future, an employer denies you a job because he or she actually went through the trouble of finding your in-home Internet consumption habits, be thankful. You've just seen the tip of the iceberg of abusive behavior with this company. What's more, any employer who would engage in such despicable behavior already has a so-called treasure trove of data available in the form of phone and financial records.

Employers can't even ask whether a potential hire is married.

And insurance? If you get denied because of some trips to medical sites, find another insurance company. This one is wasting time and money on an exercise with little potential return. There will be a company somewhere whose executives see the potential for profit in writing you a policy. And since they're not engaged in such money-wasting foolishness, it won't cost you a penny more.

Thanks for fueling privacy hysteria over a big non-story, AP.

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