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Mark Grossman

Will the Pentium III Rob You of Your Privacy?

2 March 1999

Mark Grossman's Computer Law Tip of the Week

I have bad news for you. Your computer with an Intel Pentium II processor is now obsolete. Your investment is completely wasted.

Just kidding on the obsolete part, but it is true that Intel is now ready to sell you a computer with a Pentium III in it. If you think that this is just another new chip release, then you've missed the controversy that's embroiled Intel since the announcement of the Pentium III and its interesting new feature called the "processor serial number" (PSN).

The PSN is an encoded 96-digit serial number that networks, including the Internet, can read. It will be like a caller-ID for computers. As you the surf the Net, your computer could be quietly giving away your PSN and identity--so much for anonymity on the Net.

To better understand, let's compare it to another identification number system, the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Every car is assigned a unique VIN. VINs are an incredibly useful tool for tracking a particular car's ownership history and for identifying stolen cars. I've never heard anybody complain that the VIN system is an invasion of privacy.

Now, to makes VINs more like PSNs, we'll need to add two components to the VIN. The first thing we'll do is attach a global positioning system (GPS) to your car. Using satellites, the GPS can tell anyone almost exactly where you are. That's not a bad thing, but then we're also going to add a transmitter to your car. This transmitter will send out a signal that includes your VIN and your GPS. Now with the GPS and transmitter, your VIN is roughly like a PSN for your car.

Consider the wonderful implications. It will now be easy for anyone to know exactly where you are, where you've been and where you're heading. Macys could know that you spend more time in Bloomindales' parking lot than theirs. Armed with information about your apparent preference for Bloomindales, Macys could assign you your own personal shopper to help make Macys an even better experience. And, because of your VIN on steroids, you wouldn't even have to make a telephone call to get this enhanced service.

Even better, your supervisor could know that your car is home when you're supposed to be making outside sales calls. Now, your ever considerate supervisor could call you to inquire about your apparent problem at home and offer you the assistance of the company in resolving it.

The Problem with PSN

Simply put, the PSN will allow your online activities to be tracked in ways analogous to what I've dubbed the VIN on steroids. Undoubtedly, marketers will use the PSN as yet another way to collect information. If you visit a website for information on Viagra, you may just find yourself getting pamphlets in the mail for aphrodisiacs. Are you feeling a little invaded yet?

If not, then how about the existence of a complete record of your Internet activities including websites visited, when, and how often. Maybe, you'll want to keep that complete record in mind before you click that link for a website.

I've always warned people that they should be cautious about e-mail. It's inherently insecure, difficult to control and your privacy is not necessarily assured. With PSNs, the Web may take on the same characteristics. The advice may become don't visit a website unless you're prepared for the whole world to know that you were there.

PSNs are not All Bad

While PSNs raise substantial privacy issues, they do have their proponents. They argue that PSNs enhance online security and will foster the growth of electronic commerce. For example, a software vendor could limit access to online updates and patches to computers with pre-registered PSNs. PSNs can also be used to reduce the risk of identity theft and online credit card fraud.

PSNs generally provide yet another layer of online security. For example, to do online banking today, you typically need a password. Tomorrow, you may need a password and you may only be able to do it from a computer with a preregistered PSN. With that, a password thief would need to steal your computer too.

The Legal Side of Privacy

Since this is mostly a column about the legal side of computing, by now you're probably wondering what the law has to say about PSNs. The answer is short and sweet -nothing.

Today, website owners would be free to track your PSN and do whatever they want with that information. We could see a whole new industry born. Clearly, there would be a market for companies that buy PSN information from many companies for the purpose of combining all that information, analyzing it and selling the analysis. It's a marketers delight and heaven for anybody who wants to know what interests you.

While it may be true that reputable companies will not sell PSN data, the temptation may be too great for some. The argument that the competition uses this data and is winning the "war" can be quite compelling.

Intel's Response

When this controversy took off, Intel was quick to respond with its fallback position. It's now announced that it will ship Pentium III's with the PSN feature turned off. The buyer will have to turn it on if the buyer wants to use the feature.

It sounds like a solution, but I suspect it won't be. Websites will pound surfers on the PSN issue by requiring that PSNs be enabled to access desirable features including software downloads.

This is an area begging for some Federal regulation. As much as I hate new Federal laws that impact the Internet, it's needed here to regulate the collection and sale of personal information concerning Internet activities.

CyberTips - Windows 98

Having just gone through a major hardware upgrade cycle at the office, Windows 98 has now replaced Windows 95 on my office and notebook desktops. My verdict is that it's an unimpressive evolutionary upgrade from Windows 95.

If Windows 95 was Windows 4.0 (having followed Windows 3.11 in the old numbering scheme), then Windows 98 is Windows 4.4. It doesn't rate being called 5.0. It's not that different.

I've read that 98 is more stable than 95. My own experience is that it's the same old Windows. It crashes and often it crashes ugly.

Even while writing this column Word 97 has crashed twice. Now, you could conclude that I have a problem with either my Word or Windows installation. The only problem with that theory is that it's also the only times Word has crashed on this system. My bet is that Word will "regain" its basic stability in the future. So, why did it crash? Who knows? It's a Windows PC.

Windows 98 is also supposed to be a "faster" operating system than 95. If it is, I can't feel the difference.

So, should you use Windows 98? The answer for new PCs is absolutely.


As you purchase new PCs, there is no reason not to use the latest release of Windows. It has the latest bug fixes (while of course creating new bugs), newest device drivers, adds a few new features and is just the latest minor upgrade to Windows 95.

As for your current crop of Windows 95 PCs, I wouldn't bother with an upgrade. It's time consuming, often far from seamless and offers little added functionality. You may find yourself searching the Web for new video and sound drivers and having to troubleshoot software that used to work fine. If you love aggravation and the risk of downtime, then go for it.

I'll probably try to upgrade my Windows 95 home machine because there's still a part of me that's computer hobbyist and some perverse part of me that thinks it may be "fun." Still, that's the hobbyist in me talking. I think that it's bad business. (You know that it's hobby and not functionality being served when you spend two hours tweaking something that will save you one second when you boot.) If you want to make your MIS people sick, suggest that they upgrade all the corporate PCs to 98. People have been killed for suggesting less.

I would like to acknowledge the research assistance provided by Sarah Santoro.

Disclaimer: The advice given in the Computer Law Tip of the Week should not be considered legal advice. This newsletter only provides general educational information. You must never rely upon the advice given here. Your individual situation may not fit the generalizations discussed. Only your attorney can evaluate your individual situation and give you advice.

Except as provided below, you may feel free to forward, distribute and copy the Computer Law Tip of the Week if you distribute and copy it without any changes and you include all headers and other identifying information. You may not copy it to a Web site.

Mark Grossman's online research source is Lexis-Nexis. He thanks Lexis-Nexis for their support of this column.

Will the Pentium III Rob You of Your Privacy? is republished from
Mark Grossman
Mark Grossman