November 1, 1999 10:40 AM PST
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The practice was reportedly discovered by Richard Smith, a Massachusetts-based independent security consultant, who had examined information generated from RealNetworks' RealJukebox software. The story was first reported in this morning's editions of the New York Times.
"I don't know when that change took place, but we'll get a response out by noon," RealNetworks chief operating officer Thomas Frank said today. "Any of the information we've been collecting has been designed to make the best experience for the user."
While writing a letter to Truste calling for an investigation of RealNetworks' privacy practices, Jason Catlett, founder of Junkbusters, a clearinghouse for privacy-protection measures, discovered that the policy had been changed.
"When I was writing that letter on Sunday night, I found that suddenly the GUID was described in their policy, and that wasn't there on Friday, because I have a copy of the policy that was there on Friday," Catlett said in an interview.
Privacy advocates warn that user IDs can be used to build profiles on Net users, combining surfing habits with personal information such as the home addresses and credit card numbers gathered by RealNetworks in its licensing agreement with RealJukebox users.
The profiles could be used for marketing, but if they are stored by a company they also could be subpoenaed by law enforcement officials during an investigation.
Although the policy discloses the practice, Catlett says that the practice is still invasive and that Truste should reprimand the company. "It's shameful and unacceptable that they are tracking people like packages without telling them," he said. "I have asked Truste to determine whether this is a breach."
Truste, which licenses out its privacy seals and monitors whether companies are in compliance with their data-collection policies, said today that it will investigate RealNetworks' practices.
"Anytime the privacy statement changes, it's of critical concern for us because we certify that the practices are in line with the policy," said Dave Steer, Truste's communications manager.
"We will look at whether they knew what they were doing, why they were doing it, and [whether] they intentionally left it out of their statement until there was public outcry," he added. "We are really concerned about what is going on, and we're going to look at whether RealNetworks is breaching its contract with Truste."
Another test for self-regulation
How Truste handles the RealNetworks complaint will be closely watched by privacy advocates, who have long contended that industry guidelines are no substitute for stricter consumer-protection laws.