Intel Drops Plans for ID Numbers
By Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Elizabeth Corcoran
Intel Corp. yesterday abruptly backed away from plans for its new silicon chips to automatically issue a unique identification number on the Internet, after critics complained that the technology could expose computer users to privacy intrusions.
The turnabout by the giant computer chip maker followed an announcement by privacy advocates earlier in the day that they would urge consumers to boycott Intel products in protest of the chip's ID component.
"This is a significant victory for privacy," said Barry Steinhardt, associate director for the American Civil Liberties Union, who praised Intel for responding to the criticism so quickly. "They did it on Internet time."
In announcing the ID feature of the new Pentium III microprocessor last week, Intel officials described it as an important step for Internet security. The ID number would help verify the identity of people doing business online, company officials said.
While each chip still will have a unique number, Intel officials said yesterday, software will be configured in such a way that consumers will be required to turn the ID function "on" instead of turning it "off," as the company had planned.
Chuck Mulloy, a spokesman for the Santa Clara, Calif., company, acknowledged that Intel is reversing course to show consumers it is sensitive to acute concerns about privacy aired last week after the chip's design was announced.
"We're listening to what the marketplace is telling us, that they would prefer to turn it on as opposed to turning it off," Mulloy said. "You must account for privacy if you're going to have security."
But some privacy advocates believe the change does not go far enough. Computer makers will not be able to include the software for turning the identification number off and on when they sell their first batches of the new machines, which are due to hit the market in coming months.
Instead, users must electronically fetch the program from Intel's Web site. In addition, the utility program is available only for Windows software. -Those who use the Linux operating system, for instance, must wait until those developers write a similar program.
Privacy advocates also worry that computer users will be coerced into handing over their identification numbers to get into certain sites on the World Wide Web – in essence, allowing businesses at those Web sites to track precisely what computer users do and to compare that activity with data collected about the individual at other Web sites.
"The default for privacy should be no ID number," said David Banisar, policy director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a advocacy group in Washington that helped organize the Intel boycott.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), ranking member of the Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications, trade and consumer protection, said he believes consumers need better privacy protections online. "I have great concerns about any unique identifier Web sites might use without any rules," said Markey, who wrote a letter to Intel complaining about the chip last week.
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