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Intel rivals call security plan inflexible

Plans to imprint serial numbers onto microprocessors to encourage secure e-commerce aren't catching on with the chip giant's competitors.

Intel's plan to imprint serial numbers onto microprocessors to encourage secure e-commerce isn't catching on with the chip giant's competitors.

National Semiconductor, which owns microprocessor maker Cyrix, today said that it will not put serial numbers on its microprocessors. Instead, National will pursue alternatives that may include tighter integration with smart card technology.

Advanced Micro Devices, meanwhile, said that using serial numbers is not in the company's plans, but that it will respond to market wishes. Market leader Intel last week ignited a flurry of opposition from privacy advocates and computer users when it announced that its next-generation Pentium III chip would come with a distinct serial number.

The Santa Clara, California, company has said that the number will mostly serve as an third form of identification: Under the serial number plan, a user submits a user name and password to a Web server. The server then sends an agent to "read" the serial number. If all three match, access is granted.

The number scheme is seen as a way to avoid the problem that occurs when a user name and password are stolen by third parties. Under the new plan, according to Intel, thieves would also have to steal the computer.

Privacy advocates, however, have said that the serial number plan will give Intel, or others, the ability to monitor Web traffic. Some have called for the Pentium III to be destroyed.

Unlike privacy advocacy groups, rival chip vendors don't like the idea because they think it impractical. As outlined, the plan will only give a person access to a secure Web site if one is using a specific computer. Since users are increasingly accessing the Web through a variety of devices, the system could be too limited.

"Their strategy of adding the serial number to the microprocessor doesn't make any sense," said Steve Tobak, vice president of corporate marketing at National. "The PC-centric universe is dead. There are going to be a lot more things than PCs accessing the Internet."

National is working on an alternative, he said. Although he would not give specifics, he praised smart card technology, where the identifying semiconductor is embedded on a credit card-sized device that can be used at different machines. "It could be like a smart card," he said.

Intel has said that mobility will not be a huge problem under its serial number plan because service providers can agree to accept more than one serial number location from a user.