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Intel privacy flap spreads to notebooks

Intel releases a fix for some notebook chips that contain a version of a processor serial number feature criticized by privacy advocates.

Intel conceded today that it has incorporated a prototype version of its controversial processor serial number feature on certain Pentium II and Celeron chips for notebooks.

The chipmaker said it released a fix today to disable the feature, which until now had been known to exist only on the new Pentium III processor. Privacy advocates say such information can be used to obtain private information of people who use computers with such processors.

The existence of processor serial number prototypes on these chips is sure to intensify the controversy surrounding the serial numbers. Intel said it included a processor serial number on its Pentium IIIs to enhance security for e-commerce and give corporations a way to keep track of their assets, among other reasons.

Privacy advocates, however, have theorized that the number gives unscrupulous marketers and hackers an avenue to invade the privacy of anyone who owns such a computer. Intel has modified how the serial number is activated in computers to mollify these concerns, but protests continue.

Processor serial number prototypes were included on the 333-MHz and 366-MHz mobile Pentium II processors with 256KB of integrated, secondary cache and the 266-MHz and 300-MHz mobile Celeron processors, according to an Intel spokesman. These chips were all released January 25.

The prototype number exists only on chips that were shipped in the mobile module chip package, Intel said. The mobile module is the most popular of the three types of mobile packages from Intel.

The existence of the prototype numbers was first brought to light by Pierre Chassaing at PC Codex when he was experimenting on a new Dell laptop.

The 96-bit numbers on these chips are not the same as the processor serial numbers included on the Pentium III--but they're close. And, like the Pentium III, these particular laptop chips will tell servers looking for a serial number that, in fact, the chips contain such a number.

The difference is that the serial number on the laptop chips is only a "value," according to Intel. The value is a number, but not necessarily an ID number. Nonetheless, Intel stated that the value would probably be enough to let users into "Pentium III-only" sites or others that use the number for identification.

Intel has termed the existence of these prototype numbers an "errata" and sent a fix to computer makers today. The fix will disable the serial number feature in the BIOS.