A Closer Look at Windows Media Player's Privacy Options

The first time you run Windows Media Player (WMP), you have to take a couple of minutes to set it up. Part of that setup process is selecting WMP privacy options. Some of those options may seem innocuous enough, but they can share a surprising amount of personally identifiable information with Microsoft and its "partners."

Here's a quick overview of WMP's privacy options, what they really mean, and what you should do about them:

  • Display Media Information from the Internet: Every time you play a song or watch a video, WMP goes out to a Web site owned by a Microsoft “partner,” who retrieves information about the song or video and then offers to sell the CD or DVD to you! In the process, you leave behind personally identifiable information, adding more observations about your personal activities to Microsoft’s collection.

    Recommendation: Checking this box is foolish, fattening, and immoral. And it wastes time with every song or video you play.

  • Update Music Files by Retrieving Media Information from the Internet: When you add music to your Library or rip a CD, WMP goes out to the “partner” database, retrieves the album info, and then changes the “metadata” associated with identified files, adding missing information from Microsoft’s giant database.

    Recommendation: With this option, you sacrifice privacy, but it can let you save a lot of time. If you don't have an always-on Internet connection, though, it's worthless.

  • Download Usage Rights Automatically When I Play a File: When you try to play a usage-restricted song or video, WMP automatically contacts the owner of the file (no, you don’t own the file) and requests permission to play it.

    Recommendation: There are two drawbacks to this option. First, if you have a file that needs permission, you'll probably prefer to know about it up front so that you can delete it. Second, this approach could be shanghaied to bring malware into your PC. An earlier version of this “feature” had that precise problem.

  • Send Unique Player ID to Content Providers: Whenever WMP phones home to Microsoft or contacts any “partner,” you give your permission to send a number that uniquely identifies your computer.

    Recommendation: You gotta be kidding. Microsoft lost a court case over this one: It can’t turn this switch on by default, so it tries to convince you to turn it on. Don't do it.

  • I Want to Help Make Microsoft Software and Services Even Better by Sending Player Usage Data to Microsoft: Microsoft preys on your altruistic side to get you to sign up for its Customer Experience Improvement Program.

    Recommendation: It’s hard to fathom how Microsoft can call individual ID tracking a Customer Experience Improvement Program — especially after the court cases — but here it is.

  • Save File and URL History in the Player: WMP saves detailed logs of every song or video that you play, even if you stream it from the Internet.

    Recommendation: Leave the box unchecked. The history logs don’t help much, and they’re certainly an enticing target for anyone who’s interested in your browsing history.

If you've already set up Windows Media Player and now worry that folks at Microsoft are keeping a too-watchful eye on all you watch and listen to, don't worry. You can change these settings easily enough: Just choose Tools→Options. The Privacy tab will let you readjust these settings.

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