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[P]
How far is Real willing to go for a buck?

By Neuromancer in News
Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 11:34:06 AM EST
Tags: You Know... (all tags)
You Know...

Ok now, RealNetworks first tried to sell us their products by barraging us with ads for the commercial versions before we could get to the free version. I noticed that there is also, what amounts to spam, from other companies inserted into the installation files for their software now (try installing realcenter for windows, and you'll see, it comes with several other packages that companies probably paid to put in there, especially considering their nature). Well, how about selling your privacy? That's right, free, hidden in every install of realcenter is (drum roll please) The Comet Cursor. That's right, from one company willing to do anything to make a buck to another willing to do anything to stay afloat, big brother is officially trying to hide himself in your install of realaudio.


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How far is Real willing to go for a buck? | 47 comments (23 topical, 24 editorial, 0 hidden)
This is positively ancient news (2.00 / 2) (#1)
by Pelorat on Wed Jun 28, 2000 at 04:12:17 PM EST

The Comet Cursor thing surfaced, what, early last year? It's been a while, in any case. And Real has always been one of the worst privacy violators.

Late last year (Nov/Dec 1999) and still relevant (none / 0) (#29)
by kmself on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 05:10:52 AM EST

36 million people -- that's roughly 10% of all systems, are infected with this virus.

--
Karsten M. Self
SCO -- backgrounder on Caldera/SCO vs IBM
Support the EFF!!
There is no K5 cabal.
[ Parent ]

So what can we DO about it? (2.50 / 2) (#4)
by Eimi on Wed Jun 28, 2000 at 04:21:19 PM EST

Is there a way to get rid of all the extra crap, and just leave RealPlayer? Or is there an alternative we can use?

Actually Yes (3.00 / 1) (#34)
by Neuromancer on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 11:45:49 AM EST

You are able to download realplayer separately from the Real Center software, you just have to specify this. Realplayer is actually the only part of the software that seems worth download anyways, since the rest is mostly crap tacked on to it, like banner ads in your downoad.

[ Parent ]
Re: So what can we DO about it? (5.00 / 1) (#39)
by davidu on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 02:24:56 PM EST


1) Go to www.real.com and download the basic player. It is that easy. They give you three options, one is bloat, one is sorta bloat, and one is standalone.

2) The linux version only comes in a bloat-free version....kinda funny I think.

3) I will be a freshman at WUSTL in the fall...school of engineering... :)



[ Parent ]
OptOut (4.00 / 1) (#8)
by farlukar on Wed Jun 28, 2000 at 04:31:16 PM EST

OptOut removes all kinds of "spyware". The freeware version only removes aureate/radiate but that's a good thing already.
______________________
$ make install not war

Macs? (4.00 / 1) (#12)
by Rand Race on Wed Jun 28, 2000 at 05:09:33 PM EST

Anyone know if the Mac version incorporates this feature?

I've used my nom du'net and corporate email address to register about 50 Realplayer for Mac installs here at work. They would find 'ole RR's browsing habits a bit strange and... uh, prolific.


"Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, He must approve the homage of Reason rather than that of blindfolded Fear." - Thomas Jefferson

Re: Macs? (none / 0) (#46)
by Anonymous Hero on Fri Jun 30, 2000 at 02:26:49 PM EST

I don't know for sure, but my feeling is: Of course not. The comet cursor doesn't exist for the Mac and even if it did, it's much harder for a program to hide itself in the MacOS - if the program is there, you'll see it in the application switcher. (I'm sure there's an exception here that I'm not thinking of, but that'd be an exception, not the rule) Not to get this thread off topic, but overall, the things that MS adds to Windows to make it more "innovative" are the very things that make viruses and sneaky software more possible. There are obviously exceptions, but for the most part, the MacOS isn't as open to these kinds of piggyback schemes.

[ Parent ]
What's going through their heads? (4.00 / 2) (#19)
by Tatarigami on Wed Jun 28, 2000 at 09:46:01 PM EST

I'm curious about the logic behind intrusive and legally dodgy features like this. Are the companies that make and distribute these products convinced no-one will ever find out? Or that no-one will do anything if it is made public?

The evidence seems to contradict this line of reasoning, but I haven't noticed any slowdown of news reports about programs harvesting personal info without bothering to inform the user. I seem to recall Mattel getting spanked for it a few weeks ago...

Is the company marketroids who make the decision without consulting the software engineers? Or the software engineers who convince the marketroids their code is devious enough to get away with it? Or do their PR departments just have their heads buried in the sand and haven't noticed the public backlash?

Or am I giving them too much credit by assuming most software development companies are not staffed with closet masochists who enjoy nothing quite so much as a good ol' media whipping?

Re: What's going through their heads? (none / 0) (#23)
by Perpetual Newbie on Wed Jun 28, 2000 at 11:36:49 PM EST

I'm curious about the logic behind intrusive and legally dodgy features like this. Are the companies that make and distribute these products convinced no-one will ever find out? Or that no-one will do anything if it is made public?

Probably the latter. For every advocate screaming their head off on something like this, I'd guess there are at least 25 people affected who don't care, either through ignorance of the issue or rationalizing the downside as an acceptable cost of the product. In the end, the decision comes down to whether they believe they will make more money in the long run by doing it than by not doing it; The only reason GM doesn't sell crack is because there is a more powerful entity with lots of money that frowns on this activity and will use means outside of the market to reduce their profits if they tried.

Also, these sorts of infractions in software rarely make the mainstream press; I only saw note of the Mattel issue when there was a small sidebar about Mattel being nice enough to agree to remove the feature due to some complaints.

[ Parent ]

Re: What's going through their heads? (3.00 / 1) (#36)
by Anonymous Hero on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 12:08:54 PM EST

Easy: these sorts of features present revenue streams. And most people don't think twice about giving up personal information that companies really don't have any need for, save more accurate target advertising. Hell, one of my coworkers is of the opinion that "We might as well give them that information ourselves, because they're going to try to get it anyways, and this way I can make sure they have the right information." The only thing that will stop companies from collecting this information is somehow eliminating the value to it.

[ Parent ]
more Content, please (4.00 / 1) (#22)
by Perpetual Newbie on Wed Jun 28, 2000 at 11:16:42 PM EST

This is a really really interesting topic. I consider RealPlayer to be Malicious Code and a Trojan Horse, along with any other programs that contain subprograms or routines that violate your privacy/security or install themselves in startup and hog memory without asking or needing to be there.

However, this writeup just doesn't cut it. K5 stories are supposed to be informative, not MLP. Yes, we know what Comet Cursor is, but bore us for a minute explaining why it's bad. Elaborate some more on why Real sucks. Oh, btw, the Comet thing's a year old, so you kinda oughta make up for it with a decent essay. =)

And asking us to buy their regular product before we download a free-of-charge version is Not That Bad, unless they make it abhorrently difficult to find the free version's download link, in which case it could be considered bait&switch. Realplayer is also alleged to have spammed in the past to get customers; I wouldn't put it past them.

IMO, the only thing keeping Real alive is that their technology can compress a half hour of anime from 280 megs to 30. Since mp3s could be streamed, they've started to become as popular as Streaming RealAudio because they can be about as small, and the mp3 IP isn't being defended. The only serious alternative I know to rm video is the one Microsoft came out with last year.

Another RealPlayer gripe: My father installed Realplayer, and was shocked that every warning I'd made about it was true; He didn't expect reputable software to do stuff like it did(Real has a good reputation outside the liberal techie circle, because they're the only company smart enough to come up with software that can play those darned RealAudio files that all those websites have). I killed off some of the piggyback programs, and deleted a few obscene-looking registry keys. I must have deleted the wrong key, because now Realplayer exits without a peep whenever I try to run it. Where we get to whack Real over the head is the "without a peep" part; Why isn't there an error message declaring what it was expecting to find and didn't? I bet Real's programmers are in for a fun time whenever they have to debug something.

- Perpetual Newbie

Re: more Content, please (3.00 / 2) (#35)
by Anonymous Hero on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 11:55:27 AM EST

However, this writeup just doesn't cut it. K5 stories are supposed to be informative, not MLP. Yes, we know what Comet Cursor is, but bore us for a minute explaining why it's bad. Elaborate some more on why Real sucks. Oh, btw, the Comet thing's a year old, so you kinda oughta make up for it with a decent essay. =)

Here's an even more radical idea:

Present the facts of what Comet Cursor does, without inserting value judgements into the presentation. Likewise for Real Player or any other piece of software. Then, preferrably in a separate write-up, present possible issues related to these capabilities. But leave the judgemental conclusions to the posters. They're going to be (pre)judgemental anyways, but there's no need for clouding the facts with personal interpretations or judgement calls.

[ Parent ]

Balance v. neutrality (none / 0) (#38)
by kmself on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 02:02:13 PM EST

Balance isn't something best achieved by neutral writeups, it's something you get when both sides get to present their stories, as somberly or white hot as they care to get. There's a major confusion IMO of whitewashed writing on the one hand, and aggressive, but balanced (by presenting both perspectives) discourse on the other.

I'd far prefer to see both extremes than an ersatz middle.

--
Karsten M. Self
SCO -- backgrounder on Caldera/SCO vs IBM
Support the EFF!!
There is no K5 cabal.
[ Parent ]

Re: more Content, please (4.00 / 1) (#37)
by Anonymous Hero on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 12:09:45 PM EST

Unlike yourself, I was not aware of what comet cursor did. So a short blurb about what it does is certainly not out of place.

[ Parent ]
Commet Cursor -- context (5.00 / 7) (#28)
by kmself on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 05:04:54 AM EST

Morewriteup -- that's my middle name.

Ok, context not provided in the story. Comet Cursor is a bit of software that changes the shape of a Windows cursor as it tracks across webpages. Behind the scenes, it's sending user surfing patterns to a tracking database. The story first broke toward the end of November last year. Google turns up a number of links, relatively dispersed, so I'll repeat a few here:

  • Mouse Pointer Records Clicks by Chris Oakes 3:25 p.m. Nov. 30, 1999 PST (Wired)
    The maker of a simple animated mouse pointer is raising privacy concerns because the device's software surreptitiously tracks its users' Web travels.

    When a surfer visits Web sites that use the cursor to customize their pages, the pointer transmits a record of the visit to Comet Systems, which designed the software.

  • Mouse Pointer Records Clicks cyberpunks.org:
    I didn`t agree with Real.com when it was found that they were sending unique IDs embedded in their software back to the company, because they could link up your email address and preferences to the software.

  • Privacy Story Moves Like a Comet By Deborah Asbrand (The Standard):
    Here's how the story evolved: on Wednesday, November 24, after reading an article about Comet in Upside magazine, Richard Smith, a Mass.-based privacy advocate, visited Comet's Web site and downloaded the cursor software. When he did so, he noticed his PC sending a data packet back to Comet. Wondering what the company planned to do with the information it was retrieving, Smith e-mailed the company an inquiry about the data packet. Before hearing back from Comet, he also e-mailed fellow privacy advocate Jason Catlett, of N.J.-based Junkbusters, about his findings.

  • Cursor software tracks customers -- Comet's software reports certain site visits back to company by Will Rodger (USA Today):
    The Gore campaign Monday yanked a feature from its Web site after activists raised concerns it could compromise users' privacy.

  • Cartoon cursor software tracks users' movements by Ted Bridis (Seattle Times):
    WASHINGTON - Popular software used by more than 16 million people to change a Web browser's computer cursor into cartoon characters and other images is quietly tracking its customers across the Internet and recording which Web pages they visit.

  • IP: Comet cursor in crosshairs (Mailing list post)
    (Quotes USA Today story above).

  • Re: RealPlayer and Comet Cursor
    I, like many of the people who have replied to me, glossed over the marketroid table and just clicked "full download".

    Now that the disposition of the CC software is clear, I'd like to ask another question: Why wasn't the software removed from my system after I clicked the "Add/Remove Software" button?

  • Comet's cursor software tracks users' Web visits By Sandeep Junnarkar (CNet)
    update Software that allows users to change their Web browser's cursor into cartoon characters has quietly been tracking the movement of its users across certain sites on the Internet.

    The free cursor software offered by New York-based Comet Systems assigns each user a unique identifying serial number that is then used to track how many people are using the software and which sites those users visit. The company said that more than 60,000 Web sites support Comet's cursor software, adding that some of those sites pay Comet for that right.

  • Comet Systems' cursor points to more Web advertising By Georgie Raik-Allen July 14, 1999 (Red Herring)
    This is a pre-fuss story about funding rounds for Comet Systems. It's interesting to the length it goes in trying to pitch the cursor as a valuable product without saying that, uh, it tracks users surfing patterns...
    "We are turning the cursor into an image that matches the advertisement or sponsorship," he says. "Consumers have trained their eyes to tune out banner ads, but it's much harder to ignore the cursor when you are using it all the time."

    It sounds cool, but does a cute cursor add any real value to advertisers?

    Comet Systems has gone to considerable lengths to prove that the cursor is valuable advertising space. It recently hired San Francisco research firm Milward Brown Interactive to study the effect of the cursor, in conjunction with banner ads, on advertising campaigns.

Old as this story is, IMVAO, it's very worth posting -- privacy is something you don't miss until it's gone, and the ways in which privacy can be eroded over the 'Net scare me white. Comet Systems should have this dragged up every six months (or more frequently) and have their nose rubbed in the brown smelly stuff....or doesn't anyone remember what happened to DoubleClick when they announced some rather questionable profiling practices? And which still dogs the company? (Personally concerned? Read this to do something about it).

As one of the articles mentioned, many of the websites Comet targeted were children's sites -- what are the ethics, or just plain legality -- of telling a kid to install this cool piece of software...which then tracks his or her parents' actions over the 'Net?

Here's Comet System's own pitch for the product:

Welcome to Comet Systems, the developers of the Comet Cursor ™.

See that boring arrow you're surfing with on this page? Let us show you how the Comet Cursor transforms it into an amazing online tool for navigation, marketing, and fun. Join the 37 million Web users who already see Comet Cursors across the Web!

New! Do you want to point online and offline with your favorite Comet Cursors? Download My Comet Cursor and take total control of your cursor space!

Who's taking "total control"....?

There is, naturally, a demure link titled "Comet Systems Commitment to User Privacy".

--
Karsten M. Self
SCO -- backgrounder on Caldera/SCO vs IBM
Support the EFF!!
There is no K5 cabal.

Re: Commet Cursor -- context (4.00 / 1) (#30)
by ramses0 on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 09:34:03 AM EST

Please note that there is a special (GUID-less) version of the Comet Cursor which is bundled with RealPlayer 7. -- privacy policy,

Reading through Comet's privacy policy, it feels like they got burned real bad, and are doing as much as possible to not look like evil people.

It sounds like they do collect personal information, (like what website user 123442121 was visiting, and when... which they don't consider personal information, but I do)... but they only use that personal information to do their billing services and stuff, and figure out aggregate statistics.

They say they don't use any of that personal information to generate personally identifiable information, but that doesn't mean that 10 lines of code wouldn't start tracking for people's email addresses.

Perhaps this story is moot even before posting?

--Robert
[ rate all comments , for great justice | sell.com ]
[ Parent ]

Comet Cursor in Real Entertainment Center does NOT (5.00 / 3) (#40)
by keela on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 03:02:24 PM EST

Quick context: I'm the RealPlayer product manager at RealNetworks and have spent a great deal of time doing privacy analysis and making sure that our products and services respect privacy.

We are sincerely concerned about consumer privacy and informed consent, and as a result, we worked with Comet Systems to ensure that there is absolutely no risk to consumer privacy with the Comet Cursor that is distributed by RealNetworks. The Globally Unique ID (GUID) has been removed in the version distributed with RealPlayer and Real Entertainment Center, and consequently, there is no way that users' individual behavior can be monitored -- anonymously or otherwise.

That said, please also note that you have always been able to download RealPlayer without Comet Cursor from our Web sites (the "Minimal" version of RealPlayer does not include Comet Cursor). The existence of Comet Cursor in Real Entertainment Center is clearly disclosed in the download pages. If you do download the Minimal RealPlayer version, you may use AutoUpdate to download any additional components in the Real Entertainment Center -- excluding Comet Cursor if you prefer. Simply go to the RealPlayer Help menu, then select "Check for Update."

In addition to disclosing the fact that Comet Cursor is bundled with Real Entertainment Center, we also link to the applicable Comet Cursor Privacy Statement from our download and AutoUpdate information sites, and you may read it here.

Finally, you can always remove Comet Cursor if you prefer with no detrimental effect to Real Entertainment Center functionality.

I hope that this addresses your concerns. We have done a great deal of research into privacy and Internet software, and have developed a Consumer Software Privacy Statement that outlines our privacy principles and our very high standards for informed consent. If you have any further questions, please email privacy@real.com.

Sincerely,
Keela Robison
Product Manager, RealNetworks Consumer Division

Re: Comet Cursor in Real Entertainment Center does (1.00 / 2) (#42)
by Anonymous Hero on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 04:21:34 PM EST

So you're saying that it can be removed at any time, but it's still installed. That would be bad enough, but here's my response to your post (follow the link and you'll understand):

http://www.goats.com/archive/index.html?000623
Yes, Phi...er Keela.

[ Parent ]
Re: Comet Cursor in Real Entertainment Center does (4.50 / 2) (#43)
by keela on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 04:50:42 PM EST

Uh, I think I got the comic -- not sure :)

Regarding removing Comet, when you uninstall Comet Cursor (Add/Remove Programs), it's gone -- RealPlayer and the other Real Entertainment Center components (RealJukebox and RealDownload) still operate as usual. I think that there might be one or two remnant registry items associated with Comet if you uninstall when the browser is open, but these don't result in any Internet communications and can be prevented if you close the browser before you uninstall.

[ Parent ]

Re: Comet Cursor in Real Entertainment Center does (none / 0) (#47)
by Anonymous Hero on Wed Jul 05, 2000 at 09:50:45 PM EST

But this is still installed without asking. It's like ads - people say they don't want ads in <insert name of media or software here>, but once it's there only a few try to get rid of them. This is as bad as hacking into someone's computer and leaving a few 100MB files lying around, just to waste their space.

[ Parent ]
Re: Comet Cursor in Real Entertainment Center does (1.50 / 2) (#44)
by tidepool on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 04:55:10 PM EST

We are sincerely concerned about consumer privacy and informed consent, and as a result, we worked with Comet Systems to ensure that there is absolutely no risk to consumer privacy with the Comet Cursor that is distributed by RealNetworks. The Globally Unique ID (GUID) has been removed in the version distributed with RealPlayer and Real Entertainment Center, and consequently, there is no way that users' individual behavior can be monitored -- anonymously or otherwise.

Ah. I get it. Now that you've been caught with your hand in the cookie jar, you decide that your concerned about consumer privacy. Uh uh. I don't believe it. Companies that start out with these tactics rarely change their policies - they just work harder at hiding their little secrets.

About the response about the 'comet cursor' - I would not be happy with your software unless it explicably shows / tells you that this software will be installed and what it does - before the user downloads it. Customers should not have to be worried about their privacy enough to sort through mailing lists, and other weblogs in order to find out exactly how to install a 'secure' version of a Real.tm. Program.

[ Parent ]

Re: Comet Cursor in Real Entertainment Center does (4.00 / 1) (#45)
by bmetzler on Thu Jun 29, 2000 at 05:11:12 PM EST

Customers should not have to be worried about their privacy enough to sort through mailing lists, and other weblogs in order to find out exactly how to install a 'secure' version of a Real.tm. Program.

When I go to download Realplayer, I get 3 choices to download with checklists showing exactly what I will be getting. Plus, there's linking explaining what the programs offered do. I guess I just don't get your point. I didn't have to sort through mailing lists, and other weblogs to find out exactly what I was installing and what it did.

-Brent
www.bmetzler.org - it's not just a personal weblog, it's so much more.
[ Parent ]
How far is Real willing to go for a buck? | 47 comments (23 topical, 24 editorial, 0 hidden)
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