New Computer Chip: Useful Tool or Privacy Invasion? Intel's Use of an Identification Number in Its Newest Chip Is Causingprivacy Advocates to Cringe
Paul Van Slambrouck, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
A new generation of computer chip will be unveiled this week, bringing nifty new audio and video functions to the screens of America's expanding universe of Internet users.
It will also bring a giant collision of values that are increasingly at war as the nation's newest form of communication moves into the social mainstream.
Intel Corp., whose microprocessors power most of the nation's personal computers, is embedding for the first time an identification number in its newest chip. While the chip promises to enable lots of new multimedia functions for Internet users, its identification feature gives computers a sort of fingerprint that Intel says adds security to online activities, whether making an online purchase or transferring sensitive personal data from one computer to another. But that identification feature also has the makings of a vast tracking system that could help accumulate data on users as they travel around the Web, violating their fundamental right to privacy, say critics. So outraged are some privacy advocates that they've launched a boycott of products containing the new Intel Pentium III chip, the first such broad-based boycott of a product over the privacy issue. Just as the ongoing antitrust suit against Microsoft Corp. is grappling with how to apply age-old rules of fair competition to the Information Age, the Intel controversy represents a benchmark in the struggle to apply traditional notions of privacy and security to that same information revolution. Drawing a historic parallel, computer science professor Lance Hoffman of George Washington University says traveling the Internet has been like the early days of the automobile, when people were unencumbered by the requirements of a drivers license, license plates, or traffic rules. Yet developing new procedures for expanding uses of the Internet, Mr. Hoffman says, is far more sensitive than anything encountered in Henry Ford's era. That's because one of the primary functions of the Internet is communication, which is by its very nature personal. And while the issue once concerned a relatively small group, that is no longer the case. "We're seeing the privacy concerns of cyberspace change from something that affected a relatively small number of people to the general public," adds Hoffman, director of the university's Cyberspace Policy Institute. Spearheading the boycott drive is the Washington-based advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). "A lot of people feel they're being forced to make a trade they don't want to make," says EPIC's Marc Rotenberg. The message to Internet users from Intel is "enjoy the benefits of Web-based services, but the admission ticket is your privacy," he says. …