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Do media players abuse privacy rules?

EU officials downplay music-player privacy concerns

European data protection watchdogs have played down reports that they might add music-playing software to a list of PC devices they fear breach EU0 data protection laws.

Microsoft's Windows Media Player and its main rival, RealNetworks's RealPlayer, are reported to have raised concerns because they relay users' listening habits back via related websites to central databases. This information is gathered even when users listen to music from a CD while the PC is online, and the user is never informed that the information is being tracked.

An official at the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, said that all computer devices that gather information about the user are a cause for concern among the representatives of the 15 national data protection agencies in the EU, but that the main concern remains Microsoft's .Net Passport service, which offers users a single logon to a variety of web-based applications.

"The priority is .Net Passport, but these other devices that gather information might also be examined closely," the official said on condition of anonymity.

But the national authorities knew nothing about any concrete plan to investigate music-playing software. Iain Bourne, strategic policy manager at the British Information Commissioner's office and Ronny Downes, deputy data protection commissioner for the Republic of Ireland, both said they were unaware of any specific plan to investigate music players.

Anne-Christine Lacoste, joint councillor at Belgium's data protection office, also confirmed there are no specific plans to investigate music players, just broad research into all types of software that gather information about the computer user. "What concerns us at the moment is .Net Passport," she said.

The national authorities will decide whether or not to open an investigation into Microsoft's .Net Passport at a meeting on 1 and 2 July.

"The UK will probably support an investigation with a small 'i,' " Bourne said. "There's a lot of talk about a huge Microsoft database out there with information about people's online buying habits, but there is no evidence Passport raises complex technical issues and civil liberties issues. We want to find out what is going on," he said.

Music playing software is not on the agenda for the 1 and 2 July meeting, said the Commission official.


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