Computer chip maker Intel Corp. drew fire late in January for its plan to embed a unique security technology in its Pentium III processor. The feature would let web-site operators identify a user by his or her computer, but privacy advocates feared the technology could be used to track a user’s web-surfing habits. They said such tracking could pose a special threat to students traversing the web.

Responding to a boycott of Intel products, the company said it would ship the processor with the security feature disabled, leaving it up to users to activate the feature if they desire. But privacy groups said the boycott is still on.

Changing the default setting “is not a solution,” said David Banisar, policy director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which is leading the boycott along with consumer-advocacy group JunkBusters of Green Brook, N.J.

Intel’s decision to set the feature’s default setting to “off” isn’t enough, Banisar said, because some web sites still could require users to activate the feature before they can log on or place an order.

The groups are urging computer buyers and manufacturers to avoid purchasing Intel products until the company drops its security feature from the Pentium III’s design.

An extra security layer

Intel, the world’s largest chip maker with $26.2 billion in sales last year, defended its computer-identification technology as a useful and necessary safety device.

According to company spokesman Chuck Mulloy, the feature–which imprints a random number on a computer’s chip for the purpose of identifying it to a web site operator–is meant to add an extra layer of security to internet documents and transactions.

Among other things, Mulloy said, the technology offers a boon for electronic commerce, letting companies and shoppers feel more secure in the transmission of sensitive data. It also poses a threat to hackers, who would have to steal a user’s computer in order to crack a password.

But privacy advocates, led by EPIC, said the technology puts internet users’ privacy too much at risk. Banisar told eSchool News that it’s an issue of particular concern to schools.

“The question to ask is, how could this information potentially be abused?” Banisar said. “Protecting the privacy of students is a sensitive issue.”

From a practical standpoint, Banisar said, if a processor’s serial number is ever tied to software licensing, it could cause an “administrative nightmare.”

“For instance, if Microsoft starts licensing its software to a particular processor and the old processor dies, you’d have to get it licensed to the new one,” he said.

A great victory

Intel originally had announced that its Pentium III chip would by default transmit its unique serial number internally and to web sites that requested it to help verify a user’s identity.

The feature could be turned off by consumers, but it would be turned back on each time the computer was restarted.

Intel’s concession came only hours after the boycott was launched.

“This acknowledges that consumers want Intel inside their computer, not inside their private lives,” said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who had urged Intel to reconsider its plans.

Intel Corp.

Electronic Privacy Information Center

Federal Trade Commission