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Intel to phase out serial number feature

The chipmaker will end its practice of stamping serial numbers on its processors with the next generation of chips, the final chapter in a public relations fiasco.

Intel will phase out its practice of stamping serial numbers on its processors with the next generation of chips, the final chapter in a public relations fiasco.

Intel spokesman Howard High confirmed today that the company will not include serial numbers on the next generation of its processors, code-named Willamette, that will be released later this year. The identification numbers will continue to be used in the Pentium III.

Privacy advocates applauded Intel's move.

"We're very happy that Intel has seen the light on this issue and recognized the sensitivity that many users have about permanent identifiers being embedded in their machines," said David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center EPIC. "This is a great victory for anonymity, which is what this has always been about. It validates our sense that most users value anonymity and are resistant to any technology that interferes with their ability to remain anonymous online."

The issue was a major public relations fiasco for Intel. In early 1999, the company revealed a plan to stamp each processor with a distinct number. Consumers were then expected to use the number as a form of identification, similar to a password, to enter protected Web sites.

Privacy advocates, however, claimed that the number could be used to track people's Web travels. Analysts and security experts largely debunked many of these claims. The serial numbers, for instance, weren't serialized--they were random. The use of the number was also cloaked in various encryption techniques. Besides, easier ways existed to track people, some analysts pointed out.

Privacy advocates eventually gained the upper hand. Intel agreed to disable the feature so that it wouldn't be "on" automatically. Instead, a consumer would have to enable the feature.

Additionally, few Web sites adopted the serial number feature for security purposes, High said.

"About the only place we saw it used was internally (in corporations) for asset management," he said. "It never caught on in the mainstream."

However, "It made us aware of some of their (privacy advocates') concerns and issues," he added.

News.com's Paul Festa contributed to this report.