Intel's PSN security feature hit by privacy controversy

Intel’s PSN security feature hit by privacy controversyIntel’s latest processor has an in-built serial number – and nobody likes it. Tom Foremski reports
When Intel announced that its latest Pentium III microprocessor would feature a unique Processor Serial Number (PSN) it expected praise for a solution that would enable more secure e-commerce transactions.  
 
  A safe bet?… Intel’s latest Pentium III microprocessor featuring the controversial Processor Serial Number.
Instead, Intel sparked a storm of controversy over the feature, with US privacy groups claiming that the PSN feature is a serious attack on computer user privacy because it could be used to track visits to various web sites. Several major US privacy groups asked Intel to remove the feature. Intel refused so the privacy groups are now lobbying investment fund managers to hit Intel where it hurts, by asking fund managers to divest hundreds of millions of dollars in Intel stock.
“We did invite representatives of various privacy groups to our headquarters to try and explain the PSN feature and persuade them that it does not jeopardise users,” said an Intel spokesperson. Intel’s only concession was to say that it would ship a utility with Pentium III systems that would have the PSN feature turned off.
But that effort failed to mollify privacy concerns, especially after a German computer magazine reported that it had found an easy way to hack the Intel software utility and turn on the PSN feature without the user being aware.
According to Intel, the PSN feature offers major benefits. PSN can be used to make sure only registered users run software applications, it can be used to improve the security of online e-commerce transactions, and there are other applications in remote management of large numbers of PCs that bring important benefits for large companies.
But Intel has not managed to persuade its OEMs about these benefits. IBM, Gateway, Dell Computer, and Compaq Computer have switched PSN off in their Pentium III systems. They have decided to modify the BIOS chipset that controls each PC rather than rely on Intel’s software utility.
These four PC makers represent the majority of PC sales and their thumbs-down vote shows that Intel has failed in yet another major PC initiative. Intel competitors Advanced Micro Devices and Cyrix have also decided not to copy the PSN feature.
“Intel has painted itself into a corner with the Pentium III,” noted Brian Halla, CEO of Cyrix parent National Semiconductor. “Tying the PC user to a specific PC in order to secure online transactions is the wrong approach. We are advocating a smartcard-based approach that would allow people to use any type of PC.”


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