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PC World

Intel to add personal ID numbers to chips


Pentium IIIs will come with embedded electronic ID numbers -- a move that worries privacy advocates.

January 22, 1999
Web posted at: 8:05 p.m. EST (0105 GMT)

by James Niccolai

(IDG) -- Intel plans to embed an electronic personal identification number in future PC chips in a move designed to provide users with greater security on the Internet, a company spokesperson said on Wednesday.

Intel said the development will foster the growth of electronic commerce and other Internet-based transactions. But its plans have raised the hackles of civil rights groups who say the unique identifiers may also lead to an erosion of privacy for users.

"I think this is worrisome," said Barry Steinhardt, associate director at the American Civil Liberties Union, who was briefed on Intel's plans along with other civil rights advocates.

While Steinhardt acknowledges the technology will lead to greater security, "it also provides another tool for marketers and data gatherers to collect information about individuals, and it could be a very powerful tool," he said.

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How they'll see your ID

Intel plans to include a unique serial number and a "random number generator" in each of its forthcoming Pentium III processors, which are expected to be released in March. The technology will be introduced in all of Intel's PC chips over time, Intel spokesperson Seth Walker said.

The random number generator will work in conjunction with PC encryption software to scramble messages as they are transmitted over the Internet. Current encryption software contains number generators, but because they are software-based they are more susceptible to computer hackers.

Intel's technology uses thermal noise generated by a PC to generate numbers, making them truly random and unpredictable, Walker said.

The ID numbers, meanwhile, will allow online stores as well as banks and health care providers to verify that the people they are dealing with are in fact who they claim to be. The ID numbers could also help protect against computer theft, because the ID number will enable them to be tracked if they are used on the Internet, Walker said.

"For e-commerce to grow, for Internet business to grow, transactions have to be more secure than today. To do that you have to enable those security applications in hardware as well as in software," Walker said.

How to withhold your ID

Intel is quick to point out that the ID number can be disabled by users who choose to do so, using a feature in the PC's operating system software. When a PC is sold, its default setting will have the serial number switched on.

"We'd prefer that the default option be for privacy," the ACLU's Steinhardt said. "For the average person, computers are already too complicated to use. I fear most people will not even be aware of the option."

We've got you in our sites

More significantly, online vendors may eventually require users to enable their personal ID number if they want to buy things from them, Steinhardt noted.

The identification number could also provide another tool for marketers, the government, insurance companies, and others to compile profiles of users based on their activity on the Internet, he said.

"It's important not to overstate this; it's not the privacy Armageddon," Steinhardt said. "But because it creates a unique ID number for each machine that can be related to an individual, it will be easier to track our movements.

"There's nothing unlawful about this chip," Steinhardt continued. "I think it needs to be seen in a larger context -- as another example of the need for some sort of legal protections that are needed to protect our personal information."

The secure technologies are part of a broader initiative at Intel to create "the trusted PC," a concept outlined by Intel executives at the RSA Data Security Conference earlier this week.

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