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Intel wavers in wake of boycott

Intel will ship its forthcoming Pentium III chips with a controversial security feature turned off by default. The decision is a response to a boycott of Intel called for by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Junkbusters. But its not good enough, those groups say.

    Intel will ship its forthcoming Pentium III processor with a controversial security feature turned off by default. The company announced the change today after two privacy groups called for a boycott of Intel products.

    But while the groups say Intel's decision is a sign that the company recognizes that the feature could endanger Net-users' privacy, the boycott is still on.

    Changing the default setting "is not a solution," said David Banisar, policy director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which is a co-sponsor of the boycott along with the consumer-advocacy group JunkBusters . The groups are calling on computer buyers, manufacturers, and others to refrain from purchasing Intel products until the company drops the security feature from the chip's design.

    "All this is, is proof that Intel recognizes the problem," Banisar said. "But the essential concerns are still there. This is unacceptable. We are not backing down."

    Even as it steps back a bit in the face of pressure, Intel is still defending the feature as a useful and necessary device to ensure security of online transactions. And, "changing the default gives consumers a choice," said Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy.

    Banisar said EPIC, JunkBusters, and others will meet with Intel officials on Thursday to discuss the matter. In the meantime, he said, the groups are planning to meet with Federal Trade Commission staffers to see what action, if any, the government can take. He also said the group will push for congressional hearings on the matter, if necessary.

    The feature creates a random identifying number that Intel says will add an extra layer of security to documents, such as orders placed on e-commerce sites. Each number will belong only to a particular machine, which Intel says will make it tough for hackers on remote computers to view documents.

    But it will also make it far easier to identify particular users. And, when combined with the information users give about themselves when making purchases online, and merely by surfing the Net, the feature will enable companies to potentially amass a huge amount of data on each user, said the groups calling for the boycott.

    "This is basically a permanent cookie that will track Internet users," said Banisar, referring to the software many Web sites deploy into browsers to follow users' Web-surfing habits.

    Intel's decision to set the feature's default to "off"--thus leaving it up to the user to decide whether to turn it on--isn't enough, the groups say, because e-commerce sites may require users to use the feature before they can place orders.

    Intel said the technology will actually make the Internet a safer place to shop, but has admitted that Internet users could potentially be identified and tracked. Intel also said that it would be in no company's business interest to collect data on particular Net users.

    But creating such technology and leaving its responsible use up to other companies "is kind of like selling shock batons to the Iraqi secret police, then saying, 'the ethical issue is out of our hands,'" Banisar said.

    According to Intel's Mulloy, the company had "talked to privacy groups for several weeks" before announcing the security feature. The only suggestion those groups had, Mulloy said, was over the default setting. Otherwise, he said, they all applauded the security features.

    But the those features "are basically a red herring," Banisar said. "They aren't even very good."

    Last week, the Center for Democracy and Technology issued a warning about the technology's privacy pitfalls, and U.S. Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts wrote a letter to Intel CEO Craig Barrett complaining that it "compromises personal privacy."

    In hinting at congressional hearings, Banisar suggested that the feature may actually run afoul of the proposed Consumer Internet Privacy Protection Act, introduced this month by Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minnesota).