Media Player and privacy

ONE PLACE WHERE RealNetworks and Microsoft are unlikely to compete is on the issue of privacy.

There has been a flurry of controversy lately over uniquely identifying numbers embedded in Intel's new Pentium III chip and Microsoft's Windows 98 operating system. To quell the outrage, Intel has introduced software that will allow computer users to hide the chip's unique serial number, so that it can't be used to track users' Web behavior. And Microsoft has pledged that it will no longer collect a number known as the Globally Unique Identifier, or GUID, when registering Windows 98 users.

All the while, however, people who use streaming media have already been tagged with such a unique, identifying number. Seattle Weekly has learned that both the RealNetworks' RealPlayer and the Windows Media Player carry GUIDs, and those numbers are transmitted to any site where you access a streaming file. This opens up at least the possibility of a database in which all your streaming media use can be recorded (though there is no indication that such a database exists).

Gary Schare, Microsoft's lead product manager for Windows Media Technologies, confirms that each Media Player carries a GUID. But he says the company keeps no database with those numbers and does not track individual Media Player usage.

RealNetworks officials did not respond to numerous requests from Seattle Weekly to discuss the subject of GUIDs. But executives in the business of tracking Web usage say that the RealPlayer, too, carries an identifying code. And RealNetworks, unlike Microsoft, requires you to submit your name and e-mail address before allowing you to download the player.

Every time you click onto a Web page, a variety of information about you is automatically recorded in the site's "log files"—information such as what kind of browser you use, what page you were last visiting, how long you stayed at the site, etc. If you use a media player at the site, your media-streaming activities are also recorded, along with your player's ID number.

Bill Piwonka, a product manager at Portland-based WebTrends, which makes the leading software program for sorting and analyzing log files, says that although media player GUIDs appear in the files, WebTrends does not actually compile those ID numbers or present them in its reports. "WebTrends doesn't do anything with the number," he says. "We're not really sure what it's there for or how it's used."

On the other hand, Piwonka notes, "There's no way for us to know if Microsoft or Real have put something in there that helps them track." Computer programmer Richard M. Smith, the head of Phar Lap Software, who first drew attention to the Windows 98 GUID last month, says the only way to find out would be to "put a 'packet sniffer' on, and see what's going down the wire" when you call up a media stream.

But Gary Schare of Microsoft insists that "the only place [the GUID] appears is in the log files. We don't ever pass that information around, or back to Microsoft in any way." Schare says the only contact between the player and Microsoft is through "our upgrade mechanism," whereby a player will "ping" the Microsoft server, and you'll be automatically "reminded" to upgrade if you don't have the current Player version. But even that mechanism, while in place, has not been activated, Schare says.

So why is the GUID even there? At press time, Schare said he did not know the technical justification. "I know there's a good reason. We don't just stick stuff like that in randomly."

Jason Catlett, who runs the privacy watchdog Junkbusters, speculates that the GUID could be useful for apprehending copyright violators. Just as the Windows 98 GUID is imprinted in documents created with Microsoft Office, the GUID from your player could be imprinted into the media file, Catlett speculates, and that could help track down the source of any unauthorized copying.

But Schare contends that streaming files are untouched. "It's read only. There's no tracking in a piece of content as to who's played this. That doesn't occur."

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