Privacy Downside to Intel Inside

January 25, 1999 12:00 am

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ACLU News Wire: 1-25-99 — Privacy Downside to Intel Inside

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WASHINGTON — Personal computers that contain a new generation of silicon chips will be set up to transmit unique identification numbers when online, Intel Corp. announced Jan. 21. According to the Washington Post, affirming who is who online is a key problem that must be solved to make electronic commerce blossom.

But privacy experts worry that the feature will force consumers to leave an identifying mark wherever they go in cyberspace.

“It’s the computer equivalent of Social Security numbers, which is in this country a common identifier,” said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It will follow you through cyberspace.”

On Monday, privacy groups urged a boycott of all Intel products until the company agrees to disable the new technology in its upcoming line of Pentium III chips, the Associated Press reports.

As part of their boycott, organizers intend to unveil a parody of the company’s ubiquitous “Intel Inside” logo. Theirs features the same familiar swirl but with the words, “Big Brother Inside,” AP reported.

Here’s how the chip would work, according to the Post: Whenever a computer that has the new Intel chip is turned on, the machine will automatically pump out a unique serial number if the computer is connected to the Internet or another online network.

Intel executives said that the company will not keep a record of such serial numbers, but when the consumer ventures into cyberspace, Web sites will be able to receive that number.

Many web sites already track consumers by placing identifying data files called “cookies” in visitors’ computers. But cookies from one site to another are meaningless to others. Steinhardt worried that attaching a single number to a computer will make it easier than ever to catalogue the movement and choices that computer users make online.

According to AP, consumers can turn the feature off, but it turns itself back on each time the computer is restarted.

Source: The Washington Post, Associated Press

January 28, 1999

Mr. Craig R. Barrett
President and Chief Executive OfficerIntel Corporation
2200 Mission College Blvd.
Santa Clara, CA 95052

Dear Mr. Barrett:

As you are aware, we are deeply concerned with the privacy implications of Intel’s decision to place processor-specific identifiers on the Pentium III.

It is our understanding that the new Pentium chip will have a unique identification number that could be capture online including by World Wide Web sites. This new feature, whether the default is on or off, has the potential to transform the World Wide Web from a largely anonymous environment into one where individuals are expected, or even required, to identify themselves in order to participate in online activities, communicate, and make purchases.

We appreciate the fact that Intel is sensitive to privacy concerns. Like you, we desire a robust Internet that provides stronger security for commerce and communication.

But privacy need not be traded off to achieve greater security. We believe that technical and policy solutions must be developed that provide strong security, offer robust and varied authentication tools to support electronic commerce, and protect individual privacy and anonymity. Based on what we know so far, the Pentium III unique identifier does not meet this standard. In our view, the privacy risks inherent in this unique ID feature outweigh the security it potentially provides. Therefore, we urge you to revisit the current plan to issue “unique IDs” and to develop products that support individual privacy as well as commerce.

We support Intel’s goal of enhanced online security. We want to explore with Intel other options for increasing security that also protect privacy. We look forward to a dialogue with Intel on this issue.


Barry Steinhardt
Associate Director
American Civil Liberties Union

Jerry Berman
Executive Director
Center for Democracy and Technology

Ken McEldowney
Executive Director
Consumer Action Robert Bulmash
Private Citizen, Inc.

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