Pentium III serial number protest gains

Privacy advocates seeking to force Intel to change or discontinue the personal identification number in its Pentium III chip have added material to their FTC complaint. The new material, filed by Consumer Action, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation alleges the processor serial number constitutes unfair and deceptive trade practice.

Privacy advocates seeking to force Intel to change or discontinue the personal identification number in its Pentium III chip have added material to a complaint they previously filed against the company with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The new material, filed by Consumer Action, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, elaborates on the original complaint, which said the technology can allow private information about computer users to be improperly tracked.

The use of the so-called processor serial number (PSN) constitutes unfair and deceptive trade practices, the complaint alleges.

"The FTC asked us for clarification of several points of the original complaint and we did," said Ari Schwartz, policy analyst at the CDT in Washington, D.C. "We think the FTC should fully investigate these charges."

The privacy issue has raged since January when Intel announced its plans to ship the Pentium III system with a hardware ID number. Intel's announcement in February that it would offer a software utility that allows users to switch the ID feature on or off failed to satisfy privacy groups. Critics said that software is hackable and also pointed out that PC manufacturers who assemble the computers ultimately decide whether to ship the systems with the PSN de-activated or not.

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation said it is participating in the complaint because it worries that its membership could be targeted by hate groups. "Who knows what will happen to that data?" said Loren Javier, interactive media director of the alliance in New York City.

Intel continues to defend the PSN, saying the option to turn the PSN on or off will prevent abuse.

"The user has the choice to turn it (the PSN) off or choose to turn it on when they want," Intel spokesman George Alfs said today.

The PSN is useful for managers in corporations who want to be able to keep better track of their computers, Alfs added.

The new brief outlines in more detail how the privacy of users is harmed by the PSN. It says users' expectation of anonymity is lost if they are tracked by their serial number. Important personal information about personal health care could be released publicly and children could be harassed or stalked, the document said.

"The ability to track and monitor individuals presents related risks from those seeking to cause harm -- such as stalker, harasser, or identity thief and from those seeking to collect information from individuals without their consent," the brief said.

Additionally, the privacy groups said in the brief that the PSN is the only hardware of its kind targeted for commercial use for tracking and identifying computers and individuals.

The FTC does not disclose responses to complaints unless action is taken, said Victoria Streitfeld, an FTC spokeswoman. If the agency finds a company engaged in unfair or deceptive trade practices, it has authority to seek an agreement or court action, she said.

In another privacy-related situation, Yahoo Inc. said today it had corrected a glitch in its online store that allowed customer information to be revealed. [See "Yahoo Glitch Exposes Customer Data," April 8]

Intel, based in Santa Clara, California, can be reached at +1-408-765-8080, or at http://www.intel.com/. The Center for Democracy and Technology, in Washington, D.C., can be reached at +1-202-637-9800, or at http://www.cdt.org/. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, based in New York, is at +1-212-807-1700, or at http://www.glaad.org/. Consumer Action, in San Francisco, is at +1-415-777-9648, or at http://www.consumeraction.org/.

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