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Is Apple’s Genius Good or Evil?

Genius
Earlier today, I upgraded to iTunes8, which includes Genius, a new playlist service unveiled by Apple this week.

Genius works by scanning your songs and playlists to come up with new playlists based on an artist that you select. For example, I select Blue Rodeo’s So Far Away, and then Genius created a playlist that includes Corb Lund and Lyle Lovett – songs/artists that Genius determines are in the same genre.

It’s a beautiful tool. In the few hours that I’ve used it, Genius has brought to the surface music that I haven’t heard in months.

Genius is free but there is a price involved. If you read the terms of service, you’re giving Apple the right to periodically scan your music collection and playlists – an option that you can apparently turned off.

For many people, Apple snooping into your music collection isn’t a big deal. When I put something on Twitter about whether anyone was concerned about what Apple is doing with Genius, one response I got was: ”

“I don’t know why on earth I’d care. My playlist is shared over all kinds of public networks, and hardly proprietary info. *shrug*”

I suspect this is what the vast majority of people would say about giving up another chunk of your privacy so Apple can do some digital analysis of your data.

Apple says the data it collects is completely anonymous so, in theory, it has no knowledge of who you are and the music you have on iTunes.

The risk, however, is Apple could find itself in the middle of the music industry’s war against privacy. What if Genius becomes popular to the point where the RIAA realizes that Apple has enormous amounts of data about your music collection and, possibly, how much of it is legitimate versus downloaded for free from the Web?

Of course, this is likely an extreme possibility but it is still, nevertheless, a possibility.

Perhaps I’m being an alarmist or paranoid but the more access you give to your data and your online activity, the bigger the possibility it could come back to bite you in the ass.

Despite all the talk about privacy, too many people are willing surrender their privacy – many times without knowing it. This is particularly evident within an environment where free services are all around us.

Truth be told, there is no such thing as completely free. There is always a price to be paid – even for Genius.

For more on Genius, check out MacLife while the Guardian wonders if Genius is a music-subscription service in disguise.

More: If you had doubts about what Apple may be doing with Genius, check out this Wired story on how everything you do on an iPhone is being recorded as a screenshot.

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  • Dave doyle

    Further, there are those of us who do not buy music/tv/whatever via iTunes. We just use iTunes as our music player. In order to use Genius, you have to have an iTunes Store account. In order to create an account, you MUST give them a credit card and billing address. I’ve got zero interest in providing this information at this time. Maybe I will someday but not right now.

  • Not Steve

    “an option that you can apparently turned off”

    (oops)

    “enormous amounts of data about your music collection and, possibly, how much of it is legitimate versus downloaded for free from the Web?”

    How exactly would they determine this? I can’t think of any way to do it without false-positive rates high enough to make it useless.

  • http://badcheese.com Steve Webb

    I’ve been patiently waiting at the apple genius bar before and seen clueless people come to the ‘genius’ bar and ask to have their computer fixed when their harddrive is crashed and the genius talks the gullable customer into a brand-new $3000 laptop when all they needed was a $100 harddrive replacement. I really think that the so-called geniuses are just over-hyped used car salesmen.

  • matt

    cant last.fm be held up to the light (nowhere near as mainstream as apple, but in principle its the same: cataloging the music you possess & listen to) against the worry or riaa snooping?

  • http://www.markevanstech.com Mark Evans

    @ Not Steve: I’m not exactly sure how Apple could analyze music on iTunes but I suspect the music industry could use also use technology to stain songs discovered on P2P services. Who’s to say that they’re not actively doing it already, and that Apple’s “analysis” could detect how many “stained” songs you have.

  • Not good nor evil per se

    « and that Apple’s “analysis” could detect how many “stained” songs you have. »

    If it ever happens, some guy on the internet will find out about it in about 2 seconds, and then it’s game over. Look what happened to the Google Chrome licence. Google was forced to backtrack on Chrome license terms.

  • jbelkin

    It’s also a generational thing – how many people who are over 40 embrace Facebook/MySpace and post pictures of themselves drunk, same sex kissing or reveal just about every detail about their lives and probably if you zoomed in on photos, you could figure out their exact address … or hell, just ask them … so posting a calendar listing when they had sex last month or revealing a playlist … to some people, what’s the diff?

  • http://www.markevanstech.com Mark Evans

    @jbelkin,

    You make a good point that the younger demographic (aka the youth) have a different view on private vs. public. That said, I read today that a CareerBuilder.com survey suggests that 22% of employers search through social media sites (Facebook, etc.) during the hiring process. This suggests people may want to be a little less public about everything and anything.

  • http://shegeeks.net Corvida

    Extreme? Yes, but the RIAA is known for doing very extreme things. This is exactly why I would turn this feature off. I wouldn’t want to get caught up in that war in any way.

    Great post Mark!

  • Slveryder

    I like the ability to make new playlists within my collection but I don’t like any of my info going back to Apple. Not that they’re doing anything and maybe they can’t do anything with the information; but I’m just not sure that they couldn’t change the Terms of Use in the future. If they already have the information on their servers, and RIAA or the MPAA get even more psychotic, I don’t trust the security.
    That said, if Apple wants to tweak Genius so that I can use the app within iTunes & not send information to Apple, I’d enable it in a millisecond!

  • http://pjmixer.blogspot.com/ phil

    I’m just beginning to play with Genius, but I definitely have some reservations about sharing my library, especially since many of my downloads are from grey area sources and they “kindly” embed an MP3 tag showing the source that I’m now sharing. In the big picture, I’m pretty comfortable with the big boys keeping my info private, but the dark side possibilities are there !

  • http://notnews.today.com/ David Gerard

    Apple Inc. today filed a Form 8-K with the Securities and Exchange Commission declaring that it was openly adopting Evil(tm) as a corporate policy.

  • ray

    I will admit that I don’t know a lot about every bit of info that is encoded in a mp3 file. But I have a hard time believing that anyone would be able to find a detailed history of each music file embedded within it… including Apple.

  • Rianeliza

    The points brought up here were exactly the concerns that started flying across my mind the minute I pressed the terms acceptance button (without reading, of course, like an idiot). How is apple going to treat the music I have on my computer from various sources? What are the potential consequences?

    I’ve always wanted to believe that apple falls into that rare “not evil” company index. Not fun to think about if they don’t.

  • peter lembert

    humm…..que tigueraje, yo sabia que habia gato entre macuto….
    por eso busque en google …..”que pasaria si mi libreria de musica iba a parar a apple”…….

  • http://www.edternet.com/unclefisbits uncle fishbits

    Over a year since the last post, and Apple is the big guy that is not only evil… but irrevocably stupid. Jobs is running that place into the ground…. sure the city looks safe and shiny, but some mold is pulsing in the walls.