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Taking Back Windows XP

Windows Media Player – Mind your Own Business

(Originally carried by BugNet in February 2002)

Windows Media Player (WMP) 8 ships by default with Windows XP. In fact, Microsoft gives it a place of honor, pinning it up with Internet Explorer at the top of the customized Start menu.

As soon as you start WMP, it may try to go out onto the Internet. Don’t want that to happen? Then do this within WMP:

  • Click Tools, Options;
  • Go to the Player tab, which looks like Figure 1.
  • Unselect the option “Start Player in Media Guide”.

Media Guide is an Internet site, so if this option is selected, WMP is going to head for your default Internet connection, be it broadband or dial-up. That may be more than needed if all you want to do is listen to an audio CD on your computer using WMP.

Keep Windows Media Player off the Internet, and keep it from leaving clues
about you, from this window.

While on this tab of the Options dialog, there is one other thing to consider. You may want to unselect the option that says “Allow Internet sites to uniquely identify your player.” Here’s the reason for this option, in Microsoft’s own words:

When you receive streaming media over the Internet, Windows Media Player sends a unique identifier to the server that is delivering the stream. The server uses this unique identifier to monitor your connection. By monitoring your connection, the server can make adjustments to increase the playback quality and to alert you about events that occur when receiving streams over the Internet. The unique identifier only serves to aid the server in identifying your computer and in differentiating it from other computers that may be accessing streaming media.

While this sounds fairly harmless, and makes no mention of things like digital rights management. it opens up a problem discovered recently by security researcher Richard M Smith, and explained in our BugNet Alert of January 17, 2002. Due to some unforeseen interaction between Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 and WMP, it may be possible for an unscrupulous web site to use this feature to construct “supercookies” that could be used to track your movements along the web. As long as these unique identifiers are turned off, the supercookies will be no good for tracking. The reason, according to follow-up discussion on NT BugTraq, is that with the option off, these supercookies will have a new, unique value every time WMP starts, which makes them useless for tracking.

Taking care of these two default options will make WMP both faster to use and more protective of your privacy.

Take Back Windows Page

(Note: Since this article first ran at BugNet, the issue of Digital Rights Management has gotten more important, as the music industry, the computer industry and ordinary computer users tussle over issues of rights and privacy. There's more coverage of DRM at the That's Entertainment special report.)