Tangled Webs

    Big Brother Inside
Issue 4.4
Mar 4, 1999

The Chips are Down

Technologically, Intel's new Pentium III is a bit of a yawner; a few new instructions for processing graphics and incrementally faster clock speeds. However, the chip is causing public outcry because it broadcasts a unique identification number to anyone on the Internet who cares to ask. In this way, users of Intel-based computers can be both tracked and identified over the Internet.

Privacy advocates are not amused, consumer groups are calling for a boycott, and a bill has been introduced in Arizona which would ban the sale or manufacture of the Pentium III within the state. In response to this, Intel has agreed to ship the chips with the feature turned off by default. The feature now must be activated by the user. Or the computer manufacturer, or an installation program, or an Active-X control downloaded from the Internet.

Unsurprisingly, fears have not been allayed.

The inclusion of this tracking feature is going to cost Intel both financially and in terms of consumer goodwill. And I suspect Intel was fully aware of this when they made the decision to include it. It's hard to believe anyone at Intel was surprised to find consumers upset at the idea of having their every Internet movement tracked.

Many critics are decrying this technology as just another example of corporate America goose-stepping over individual rights. I think that is a hopelessly shallow view. Intel, like any well-run corporation, does not go around spiting on consumer privacy just for fun. They only do it when there is money to be made. And therein lies the mystery. How does Intel plan to make money off this tracking technology?

It's For Your Own Good

Let us examine Intel's professed reasons for introducing the functionality, to increase consumer confidence in e-commerce and to prevent software piracy. Anyone who has worked with e-commerce will see the absurdity of the first claim. I have extensive experience in e-commerce, and I have yet to hear anyone suggest that consumers would be more willing to shop online if only they could be positively identified at every website they visited.

Furthermore, having the chip send an ID number to the site is really no more secure than having software send one. The server has no way of knowing whether the ID is being generated in software or hardware, so spoofing becomes a snap. In fact, in an e-commerce situation, either of these approaches is far less secure than the traditional username and password system.

There is a bit of truth to Intel's claim that CPU serial numbers could make things harder for software pirates. Actually, Sun Microsystems has been doing this for some time to make sure that the licensed operating system will only run on one particular machine. Likewise, some software packages use dongles (small peripheral devices containing a serial number) to prevent software piracy.

Most hackers agree that such measures have only marginal effectiveness, but even if they were effective, it would not explain Intel's decision. Intel does not make software, and probably benefits from piracy. If people are forced to spend more on software, they have less money to purchase hardware. I am certainly not suggesting that Intel encourages or approves of software piracy. However, I find it hard to believe that they would knowingly sacrifice their own earnings and public image to combat it with such and ineffective scheme.

No matter how you look at it, unless this tracking technology can be made a standard, Intel's decision to include it doesn't really makes much sense. But Intel is no longer a monopoly, and I don't think they will not be able to force an unpopular standard like this on the industry. Users will simply buy Windows-compatible computers made with AMD chips. No, there is only one company in this industry strong enough to turn such a terrible idea into a standard, and Microsoft has been silent on this issue. Or have they?

Bigger Brother

In a December 1997, Microsoft senior vice president Joachim Kempin sent email to Bill Gates explaining the need to change the way Windows is licensed. "While we have increased our prices over the last ten years, other component prices have come down and continue to come down" and the Windows license is becoming a greater and greater percentage of the cost of a new PC. This is undesirable, as is dropping the price of Windows. Kempin's solution was to move to an arrangement in which users are charged yearly fees for the rights to use the software.

It's actually quite a good idea, but such a plan can not be realistically implemented today because there is no way of uniquely identify computers. Identification numbers stored on the hard disk or in firmware could easily be copied to another machine. A unique CPU number that can be transmitted over the Internet seems a tailor-made solution.

Let's look at how such a system could work. You would connect to the vendor's website and provide all personal information the vendor deems appropriate. Perhaps the site would also scan your machine for any unlicensed software. Your new software would then be activated to run only on that machine. If you needed to reinstall the software, you would simply reconnect to the site and since your computer's ID is in the database, your software would be reactivated automatically.

The procedure has a lot of potential, but it would result in the elimination of privacy on the Internet. Detailed consumer profiles would be collected, and provided as a service to any website that wished to subscribe. By retrieving ID numbers, site operators would immediately have access to extensive profiles on each and every visitor. Perhaps a few short-sighted retailers consider this situation desirable. However, such an eventuality would have a chilling effect on Internet commerce. Movement in that direction should be fought as tenaciously as possible.

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© Copyright 1999, Tim Romero, t3@vanguardjp.com
This article fist appeared in the Mar 3, 1999 edition of The Japan Times.
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