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Week in review: HP goes to Washington

Key players in pretexting probe appear before Congress, expressing regret or taking the Fifth.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
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Steven Musil
7 min read
Key players in Hewlett-Packard's pretexting probe appeared before a congressional committee to answer questions about the scandal. Some expressed regret, some claimed ignorance and some took the Fifth Amendment.

The committee began by grilling former Hewlett-Packard Chairman Patricia Dunn over why she didn't recognize that investigators would have to turn to dubious means to get personal phone records. Dunn said she relied on the advice of others, including HP's outside investigator, Ron DeLia.

"I did not know where this information could be found publicly, but I was aware that the kinds of investigations done by Mr. DeLia had previously been based solely on publicly available information," Dunn said.

The comments came at the start of two days of hearings by an oversight and investigations subcommittee of the House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee. The hearings are focusing on the practice of pretexting, or obtaining phone records without consent and through the use of false pretenses.

Among those who refused to testify was Ann Baskins, who resigned Thursday morning as HP's general counsel.

HP CEO Mark Hurd testified that he wishes he had asked more questions about the leak investigation.

"I wish I had asked more questions," Hurd said in his opening statement before being questioned by the House subcommittee. "There are signs I wish I had caught."

Hurd repeated an earlier apology to the victims and to HP's employees.

"If Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were alive today, they'd be appalled. They'd be embarrassed," he said.

Many CNET News.com readers expressed anger and frustration at HP executives, but one reader placed the blame for the privacy intrusion on the telephone companies.

"There are many safeguards they can put in place to protect our privacy," wrote one reader to News.com's TalkBack forum. "How about a simple 'we will call you back on your home phone line before we can continue'?"

In other developments, News.com learned that a second HP employee warned others at the company that the tactics being used in its leak probe might be illegal. In a Feb. 7 e-mail, HP security official Vincent Nye told the company's head of security and a lawyer supervising a probe into unauthorized leaks that he had "serious reservations" about what the company was doing.

Nye said that his understanding of the methods HP was using to obtain telephone records using false pretenses "leaves me with the opinion that it is very unethical at the least and probably illegal," he said in the e-mail, which was turned over to the House Energy and Commerce Committee and seen by CNET News.com.

One self-described data broker's expertise in pretexting offers insight into the methods now popular with hundreds of data brokers around the country. And while the data broker, who declines to say what he's done for a living since leaving data brokering, is not believed to have had anything directly to do with the HP spying, he is closely linked to some of those involved.

Spotlight on the core
Intel has built a prototype of a processor with 80 cores that can perform a trillion floating-point operations per second. CEO Paul Otellini held up a silicon wafer with the prototype chips before several thousand attendees at this week's Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.

The chips are capable of exchanging data at a terabyte a second, Otellini said during a keynote speech. The company hopes to have these chips ready for commercial production within a five-year window. Intel uses its twice-yearly conference to educate developers on its long- and short-term plans. Over three days, hardware developers and partners get a chance to interact with Intel employees and take classes on new technologies.

Intel expects PC performance to increase 70 percent for some applications with its new "Kentsfield" quad-core processor coming in November. The performance jump compares the 130-watt, 2.66GHz Kentsfield, to be called the Core 2 Extreme QX6700, with the current speed champ, the 80-watt, 2.93GHz dual-core Core 2 Extreme X6800.

In addition, the quad-core "Clovertown" processor for servers, to be called the Xeon 5300 and also scheduled to arrive in November, will be about 50 percent faster than the current "Woodcrest" Xeon 5100 at the same 80-watt power level. The performance improvement was measured with a test of integer-processing speed.

Intel also announced two moves that will mean other chipmakers can tightly connect their own processors to Intel's. In one step, the chipmaker will let two companies, Xilinx and Altera, plug their special-purpose chips into the front-side bus that Intel currently uses to connect its own processors to other processors, memory and all other computing subsystems.

In a second step, code-named "Geneseo," it will improve the ubiquitous PCI (peripheral component interconnect) technology to accommodate a wide variety of accelerator chips. IBM and Intel co-developed Geneseo.

The moves counter those of rival Advanced Micro Devices, which has gained market share against Intel--particularly in server sales--and which offers a direct-connection technology called "HyperTransport."

HyperTransport, which began at AMD but is now being jointly developed by a number of computing-industry companies, offers direct high-speed connections to and among processors.

The Redmond code
Microsoft has filed a federal lawsuit against an alleged hacker who broke through its copy protection technology, charging that the mystery developer somehow gained access to its copyrighted source code.

For more than a month, the company has been combating a program released online called FairUse4WM, which successfully stripped anticopying guards from songs downloaded through subscription media services such as Napster or Yahoo Music.

Microsoft has released two successive patches aimed at disabling the tool. The first worked--but the hacker, known only by the pseudonym "Viodentia," quickly found a way around the update, the company alleges. Now the company says this was because the hacker had apparently gained access to copyrighted source code unavailable to previous generations of would-be crackers.

Microsoft also issued a "critical" security fix for Windows two weeks before its scheduled release date. The company broke with its monthly patch cycle to fix a flaw that cybercrooks have been using to attack Windows PCs via Internet Explorer. Malicious software can be loaded, unbeknownst to the user, onto a vulnerable Windows PC when the user clicks on a malicious link on a Web site or in an e-mail message.

The vulnerability, first reported last week, lies in a Windows component called "vgx.dll." This component is meant to support Vector Markup Language documents in the operating system. VML is used for high-quality vector graphics on the Web and for viewing pages in the IE browser that is part of Windows. Microsoft deems the flaw "critical," its highest severity rating.

The rare, out-of-cycle Windows patch fixed one flaw, but attacks continue through other known, yet-to-be-plugged holes. Microsoft warned of "limited zero-day attacks" that exploit a new flaw in PowerPoint, Microsoft's widely used presentation tool. For the attack to be carried out, a user must first open a malicious PowerPoint file attached to an e-mail or otherwise provided to them by an attacker.

For temporary protection against PowerPoint attacks, Microsoft suggests keeping security software up-to-date and not opening presentation files from untrusted sources. Also, PowerPoint Viewer 2003 is not vulnerable, the company said.

Coming attractions
Microsoft's 30GB Zune digital-media player will sell for $249 when it hits store shelves on Nov. 14, the company said as it released more details on the device. The Zune's price will put it in direct competition with Apple Computer's latest 30GB iPod, which also costs $249.

To introduce the companion Zune Pass music service, the device will come preloaded with songs, music videos and film shorts from the store. A Zune Pass will cost $14.99 a month, or $44.97 for three months. There will also be the option of purchasing individual songs through a system called Microsoft Points. The new Microsoft cash system will work by adding money to an account, as with a prepaid phone card.

Meanwhile, Sling Media, maker of the place-shifting Slingbox device, released three new gadgets for watching TV remotely: the Slingbox Pro, Slingbox AV and Slingbox Tuner. Each product targets a different segment of the TV-watching market--home theater enthusiasts; DVR or cable set-top box owners; and basic-cable subscribers.

Although the products are new, the idea remains the same. The funky, trapezoid-shaped box can beam the channels or TV services you've paid for at home via a broadband connection to a PC, laptop, Windows-based mobile phone or portable PC while you're on the road.

Also, Intel and DirecTV are getting ready to release their first joint product, a new set-top box with Intel's Viiv home media technology. First announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the set-top box comes with hardware and software that lets television watchers access Internet-based content when connected to a Viiv PC.

The DirecTV Plus HD DVR will be available to subscribers in the fourth quarter, and a software download needed to make everything work is supposed to be available in December from the satellite provider.

Also of note
Sony's battery-recall problems grew ever more intense as Lenovo recalled 526,000 notebook batteries and Toshiba recalled 830,000 laptop batteries due to possible short-circuiting problems...Microsoft announced that it will create a new video game studio in collaboration with "Lord of the Rings" and "King Kong" director Peter Jackson...Major League Baseball has taken its podcasts off Apple's iTunes Store, making them exclusively available through its own Web site, MLB.com.