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Apple hauled into court over disclosing iTunes users’ personal data

A lawsuit claims the company didn’t honor its privacy promise

Photo (c) Lalocracio - Getty Images
Three Apple iTunes users have filed a lawsuit against the company for purportedly disclosing -- and selling -- their listening habits, purchases, and personal data to advertisers without getting their consent.

The rub is simple: in the plaintiff’s mind, Apple didn’t practice what it preached in an Apple billboard reading “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone.”

Apple’s ad seems innocent enough given that it ran only in Las Vegas and was riffing on Vegas’ tourism line, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” However, Apple made a blunder when it also pointed to in the ad. On that site, the company clearly says that every Apple product “is designed from the ground up to protect [user] information. And to empower you to choose what you share and with whom.”  

That mantra is widely used. Only a few weeks ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook kept that consumer promise alive when he said Apple doesn’t want consumers’ data.

The disgruntled iTunes users are from Rhode Island and Michigan, states that have laws in place that protect records of entertainment purchases. In their lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco, the plaintiffs claim that iTunes’ disclosure of consumers’ personal data is not only illegal, but also alarming because it allows the company to target “vulnerable members of society.”

“For example, any person or entity could rent a list with the names and addresses of all unmarried, college-educated women over the age of 70 with a household income of over $80,000 who purchased country music from Apple via its iTunes Store mobile application,” the lawsuit points out. “Such a list is available for sale for approximately $136 per thousand customers listed.”

Spy Tunes

Whether Apple can prove its intentions weren’t as marauding as Facebook’s has been, there is evidence that the company has made similar missteps before.

“A person’s taste in media can be highly personal, yet all of Apple’s more than 10 billion song and 200 million TV and movie downloads are potentially traceable by the George Smileys of the world the world’s spies, stalkers, yellow journalists, and opposition researchers,” wrote Andrew McAfee, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) back in 2011. (Author’s note: Smiley is a spy in John le Carré novels.)

“Of course, this is nowhere near as big a deal as privacy holes in online health or financial information would be, so we should keep this issue in perspective. But it is an issue, I think.”

Whether Apple is speaking out of both sides of its mouth is something for judge and jury to decide, but it’s possible the company might use existing language in the company’s advertising and privacy policy as a shield.

“To ensure ads are relevant, Apple’s advertising platform creates groups of people, called segments, who share similar characteristics and uses these groups for delivering targeted ads. Information about you is used to determine which segments you are assigned to, and thus, which ads you receive. To protect your privacy, your information is used to place you into segments of at least 5,000 people,” Apple states in that policy.

Calling out the tech industry

It’s interesting to note that while Apple may be the one in the lawsuit’s crosshairs, the plaintiffs pull other companies into the mix, spreading the blame across the larger tech landscape.  

“Apple is not alone in jeopardizing its subscribers’ privacy and well-being in exchange for increased revenue: disclosing subscriber information to data aggregators, data appenders, data cooperatives, direct marketers, and other third parties is a widespread practice in the publishing industry.”

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