New Mac OS Feature Raises Privacy Concerns

The latest update to the Mac OS sparks a privacy debate, as a feature meant to authenticate desktop widgets is believed by some to be phoning home to Apple.

Is your Mac "phoning home"?

Thats the question some Apple users are asking after installing an updated version of the companys Mac OS X—Version 10.4.7—that aims to help authenticate desktop widgets. According to at least one blog, Apples efforts to help identify and validate end users desktop widgets may have also introduced a new privacy-related issue.

Widgets are lightweight desktop programs running, in this case, on the Mac OS that can be tailored to provide end users with different types of information. Common applications include links to weather pages or to specific sites such as CNN or MySpace.

Apples Dashboard Advisory, another security feature in the recent update, was designed to ensure that the widgets users download are legitimate and authorized by the company that created them.

In a discussion on the Red Sweater blog site, some Mac users expressed concern that Apple had begun to collect information about its customers without them knowing about it.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more about the improvements in the Mac OS X 10.4.7 release.

"Apple released Mac OS X 10.4.7 last week, and ever since I installed it, Ive been noticing Apples own modest home phoning behavior, wrote one blogger on July 3.

Another blogger wrote that there doesnt seem to be "much harm in this contact," but that "Apple should ask the user, or at least make the phoning home clear in its license."

A third writer questioned the purpose of the contact: "Apart from the phoning home, I wonder what the theory behind this service is—to tell us about evil widgets? If yes, who determines which widgets are evil?"

The debate about Mac OS comes at a sensitive time as IT vendors efforts to track online computing activity, particularly without giving warnings, are raising users ire and triggering legal action.

Since late June, Microsoft has been served with two separate class-action lawsuits concerning a feature in its Windows Genuine Advantage anti-piracy software. That feature forms a link between the computers running the companys Windows XP operating system and its own servers.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read whether Apple will preview "Leopard," the next version of the Mac OS, at its annual World Wide Developers Conference in August.

In one complaint, a California resident has filed suit in Seattle claiming that the WGA Notifications feature, meant to help Microsoft identify people using pirated copies of Windows, violates federal anti-piracy laws by secretly contacting Microsoft servers. At the heart of the suit is the claim that the software giant installed the feature as part of a security update, without offering customers sufficient details of the technology, or the option to turn it off.

Microsoft has since updated WGA to remove the controversial notifications feature.

John Pescatore, an analyst with market research firm Gartner, of Stamford, Conn., said these types of revelations come at a time when there is a growing debate about balancing end users security and privacy concerns.

Pescatore said the best option for companies such as Microsoft and Apple is to ensure that they clearly explain every feature to customers and offer people the option to opt out.

"If you sneak it in, its automatically wrong, Pescatore said on July 6. "Its wrong because of the fact that you had to sneak it in."

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