Privacy camp threatens to extend Intel boycott

Consumer privacy advocates are threatening to extend their boycott of Intel's next-generation Pentium III chip to the computer manufacturers who use it.

But at the same time, 20 or more companies are expected today to demonstrate products and features showing how the chip's controversial tracking technology can be used. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and are protesting Intel's use of electronic identification technology in the new chips that they claim would allow Web surfers to be tracked. Intel has pushed the ID chips as a security feature.

In letters to Compaq, Dell , Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM, and later published on the Internet on Monday, the groups said "the organisers are considering extending the boycott to major PC manufacturers who ship Pentium III systems in a configuration that would significantly damage consumer privacy."

The letters asked the PC makers to identify exactly how they intended to make use of the processor serial number. "We are just going to keep making it painful and expensive for them to have the feature on," said Jason Cartlett, president and CEO of privacy advice seller Junkbusters. "We will keep it up until it becomes cheaper for them to keep the serial number off."

The processor serial number (PSN), also known as the chip ID, is a unique identifier "burned" into the Pentium III processor that can be accessed over the Internet, allowing e-commerce sites and others to know which machine is visiting a site or using a service.

Despite the privacy protests, Intel expects 20 to 30 software makers to show off products that use the processor serial number feature at its Pentium III Preview Day on today. "There is a lot of benefit, especially in corporate environments," said George Alfs, spokesman for Intel. "A lot of applications will be shown, including a variety of asset management tools and some consumer applications as well."

The processors will come with software to toggle the serial number on and off. Originally, Intel intended to ship its processors with the serial number tracker "on," but complaints from consumer groups and users convinced them to turn it off.

Both EPIC and Junkbusters thinks the industry needs to go further. "Intel said that they are going to change the default and that caused the press to die down, but in reality it is out of their hands," said Cartlett. "The PC makers control the setting. So we have to find out what their intent is in order to find out whether they boycott should be extended to them."

An option that would likely satisfy privacy advocates is if the PC makers turned the processor serial number off in the system's BIOS, or basic input/output system -- the first code to start running when the system starts up. Essentially, such a PC would operate as though it didn't have a serial number. Intel's Alfs said several PC makers would be doing this. "BIOS rules all," he said. "If the PSN is turned off in the start-up code, then you can't turn it back on unless you make changes to the BIOS."

If not enough companies turn the processor serial number off, however, there could be a massive consumer backlash, Cartlett said. "There is a good chance of an embarrassing market failure for the Pentium III."