Identify the user, not the processor

Network World, 02/08/99

Intel claimed it was just trying to enable electronic commerce. But
what the company did was only marginally useful for e-commerce,
scared the bejeezus out of privacy advocates, and got Intel headlined
dead center at the top of The New York Times' front page.

Intel thought it would be a good thing to be able to tell one computer
from another, so the company added a unique serial number to each
of its new Pentium III processors. There are a number of reasons this
might be useful. Intel suggested the serial number could be used to
tell e-commerce users apart on the 'Net. It also could be used to track
down stolen processor chips and computers. In a throwback to some
mainframe software, the serial number could let vendors tie software
licenses to individual machines. Because these goals seem reasonable,
Intel must have been shocked by the reaction to its announcement.

Privacy groups reacted quickly and very negatively. Here was
something that could become the Internet equivalent of a Social
Security number - something that could be used to identify a user
wandering around the World Wide Web. At the minimum, this could
spawn unwanted sales e-mail and calls; at worst, it could be used to
build dossiers on Internet users.

The press quickly picked up on the privacy groups' vehement
denunciation of Intel's plan. Intel then wasted little time in announcing
that the serial number feature would be disabled by default, and a user
would actively have to turn it on.

This did not satisfy the privacy groups because browsers and other
software could surreptitiously re-enable the serial number feature at
any time. The privacy groups have now asked the Federal Trade
Commission to force Intel to recall any early Pentium III chips that
have been shipped and prohibit Intel from shipping any more with the

Ironically, while a serial number is a legitimate worry to people who
would like to preserve what little privacy we have left, it is not reliable
enough to be used in e-commerce. E-commerce requires the
identification of an individual, but a processor serial number identifies
the processor in a computer. Because users switch between
computers and many computers are used by multiple people, a
processor serial number identifies the wrong thing for e-commerce.

It would have been far more useful if Intel had worked instead on an
inexpensive and reliable smart card and reader. If PCs came equipped
with such readers, users could plug in a card to identify themselves
when engaging in e-commerce and not at other times. Users could
anonymously buy packs of these smart cards to use in different
activities or with different vendors.

Disclaimer: Education via e-commerce is a new topic at Harvard, and
the university has expressed no opinion on the above.