Microsoft Admits Privacy Problem, Plans Fix

Microsoft has acknowledged that a feature of its Windows 98 operating system can be used to trace the identity of authors of electronic documents, according to a report. The company acknowledged that Windows 98, and other Microsoft applications such as Word and Excel, generate unique identification numbers that are linked to registered users' names, according to a report in the The New York Times.

The ID number is transmitted to Microsoft whenever a customer registers his copy of Windows 98 using the automated "registration wizard" included in Windows, according to the report. The company said it will alter the way the registration process works in the next maintenance release of Windows 98, according to the report.

Richard M. Smith, president of Phar Lap Software in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said he first noticed last week that documents created using Microsoft's popular Word and Excel programs in tandem with its Windows 98 operating system included within their hidden software code a 32-digit number unique to his computer, the Associated Press reported.

The number, called a Globally Unique Identifier, is at least partly based on a 12-digit number unique to a computer's Ethernet network adapter, a hardware device used to link computers to local area networks and to the Internet, according to the AP. Windows 98 still generates the ID, even without an Ethernet card installed. The operating system merely bases the number for those computers on a fictitious network address that is the same for all such machines.

Robert Bennett, Microsoft's group product manager for Windows, told the AP yesterday that the company will create a software tool to let customers clear the ID number from the Windows repository of system settings, called its Registry. The controversy comes just weeks after Intel found itself embroiled in a controversy over an ID number hardwired into its Pentium III microprocessors.

Privacy advocates have protested against the inclusion of the Pentium III serial code, arguing that the feature presents an easy opportunity for marketers or those with nefarious intentions to track a user based on his or her Web behavior. Microsoft officials claim the Windows ID was not planned to keep tabs on users' actions. "Microsoft is in no way using that identifier, or any identifier, to track user behavior or to do any marketing," Bennett told the Associated Press, adding that the ID number was never intended to be sent regardless of consumer preference. "If it is, it's just a bug," Bennett said. "If it is indeed happening, and we have testers working this weekend, we'll absolutely fix that."

Bennett promised that Microsoft also will wipe any of those numbers from its internal databases that the company can determine may have been inadvertently collected.



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