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Big Brother is taking a nap

Intel's plans to embed a serial number on the Pentium III has drawn a firestorm of criticism. Bah humbug, says Michael Kanellos.

Can someone explain privacy advocates to me?

Intel's plan to embed a serial number on the Pentium III has drawn a firestorm of criticism. Under the plan, the serial number becomes a form of identification on select Web sites, sort of like a hard-wired password. You and your computer, essentially, become one. The plan was put in place to stop identity theft.

The response was immediate. Junkbusters called for a ban on the Pentium III, saying the chip is "toxic hardware" and asked Intel to destroy all existing versions of it. In Arizona, State Representative Steve May (R-East Phoenix) threatened to bring legislation to ban sales of the chip in the Grand Canyon State.

And my email has been flooded with hundreds of complaints that the serial number will open private lives to the FBI, telemarketers, and corporate America.

"This is pure nonsense. A recipe for disaster brought to us by people that haven't got a clue. I hope our trade press soundly condemns this for both reasons," was typical of the statements sent by privacy advocates.

But then, on the bottom of many of these emails, the sender would include his or her full name, address, phone number, fax number, direct phone line, return email address, title at work, and a quote from a favorite film. Many of these missives also appeared cc'd to various newsgroups.

Bit of advice: If you shield your life from the prying eyes of the world, do not post valuable personal identification information to an electronic bulletin board, much less send it to a news organization that is known to publish nearly anything that comes its way. (See Samsung cooks up Net microwave for more evidence on that point).

The paradox in all of this is that, despite all the concerns for privacy, the Internet has taken off primarily because it isn't private. With the Web, you can shed the insular nature of private life and bask in the grimy heat of notoriety.

A liposuction procedure was broadcast live over the Net for the first time last January at OnLine Surgery, while a face and neck resurfacing with brow lift took place in November. ("To view the surgical procedures, you must have Real Player. PLEASE NOTE: for best viewing download Real Player G2 final release version," the site advises. Thank you, Rob Glaser). A sex change operation will be covered in the near future.

Weddings, funerals, watching TV, naps--nearly every human endeavor that used to take place in obscurity has become a public spectacle. The world stage has never been so close for John Doe, or, for that matter, Whiskers, the 8?-week-old kitten of John Doe who wants to get "fixed" online.

Conversely, nearly every one in the world is a few keystrokes away. Organizing a letter writing campaign to put Rhoda reruns back on TV has never been easier.

Advocates, of course, will respond that this is not the privacy problem they fear. The problem with the serial number, they maintain, is that it creates a trail describing where and when a certain persons visited Web sites and why.

With the serial, police can maintain Web surveillance on anyone with a Pentium III computer while marketers can learn how to target individuals better. There is also a fear that a database of these serial numbers will be maintained.

There is only one major problem with this argument: It's already happening. Web usage is already tracked through IP addresses, the unique, identifying number assigned to you by your ISP. Because most people don't change Internet accounts daily, a record of your Web life pretty much exists right now. For police, tracing this is likely much easier than tracking a factory serial number. (As an aside, tracking someone off the serial number will be extremely difficult, according to many, but who knows.)

And if this helps target marketers, even better. "Ugly, Unwanted Hair Gone Forever," "Great News for Sexually Transmitted Disease Sufferers," "My Name is Bill Guiles, a Licensed Physical Therapist," "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been in the FBI Files?," and "Allow us to invite you to Touch The Sacred Ground," are titles to spam marketing letters I have received in the last week, and only the first got an excited reply.

In a worst-case scenario, the worst that will happen is that many will realize they don't have much to hide.