IBM To Block P-III Serial Numbers

IBM [NYSE:IBM] has told the Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy advocacy group, that it will ship its PCs with a controversial Pentium-III processor serial number feature disabled at the hardware level. Meanwhile, a CDT official told Newsbytes the organization plans to file a letter of complaint with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) protesting Intel's serial number feature. In a letter to the CDT, a copy of which was obtained by Newsbytes, Christopher G. Caine, vice president for government affairs, told Jerry Berman, CDT's executive director, that IBM will disable the feature in the basic input/output system (BIOS).

Intel has promoted the P-III serial number feature as a way to authenticate users and thereby make e-commerce transactions more secure. However, it has raised the hackles of civil liberty groups because a serial number that can be queried remotely could also be used for darker purposes like tracking people across the Internet. The IBM letter said the firm "promotes and supports active industry leadership in tackling the privacy issues" created by e-commerce and the Internet. Wrote Caine, "We believe that the use of such identifying technology should be balanced by giving the consumer the ability to decide whether or not to activate it."

He continued, "That is why, in addition to the actions taken by Intel, IBM plans to go the extra step and disable the processor ID features at the BIOS (or hardware) level in our Pentium III client systems." Newsbytes notes that, after privacy groups protested the serial number feature, Intel said it would provide a utility program to let users turn off the feature. Shortly after, German magazine Computer Technology claimed a hacker could bypass the utility and access the feature without the user's permission (Newsbytes, Feb. 24, 1999). Intel spokesmen said they knew hackers might bypass the software controls but they did not plan to recall any processors already shipped to vendors or to delay the P-III general release later this week.

Hardware control at the BIOS level would be harder to bypass than a software on-off switch. CDT policy analyst Ari Schwartz confirmed to Newsbytes that the organization had sent a letter to PC manufacturers and retailers asking them to take steps to block the serial number at the hardware level. The letter requested a response by Feb. 22 but so far, said Schwartz, only IBM has responded. "We were going from manufacturer to manufacturer, hoping to get them to respond," Schwartz commented. "We're pleased with IBM's leadership in doing what they can. Some others have said privately that they're going to respond, but we haven't heard from them officially yet."

CDT sent its query letter to chief executive officers (CEOs), Eckhard Pfeiffer of Compaq, James Halpin of CompUSA, Michael Dell of Dell Computer, Theodore Waitt of Gateway, Lewis Platt of HP, Louis V. Gerstner Jr. of IBM, Alain Couder of Packard Bell/NEC, Howard Stringer of Sony Corp. of America, and Shunichi Yamashita of Toshiba America. Said Schwartz, "We gave them a very quick turnaround deadline, because (Intel is) about to ship the processor." He said CDT will post on its World Wide Web site the names of firms that promise hardware control over the serial number feature.

"We're not saying authentication is not important," Schwartz told Newsbytes. "It is. But throwing this serial number out at the public is not the way to solve authentication issues." Said IBM's Caine in his letter to CDT, "Consumers purchasing an IBM PC ...can feel confident that they will have knowledge and control over what kinds of personal information they choose to share when using it." Declared Schwartz, "Intel has placed this burden onto the public. We're trying to let the public know which manufacturers plan to do what they can to make sure serial number tracking is disabled by default."


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