In Intel's latest move to deter fraudulent "remarkers" of its processors, the company has released a free software application that can let you know if the chip you bought has been tampered with.
The software, which initially will work only with the company's newest Pentium III generation of processors, identifies hidden codes in the processor and allows users to see if the chip they bought is actually running at its rated speed.
If the chip is running faster than the rated speed, and you didn't knowingly "overclock" the chip yourself (which isn't illegal but voids the chip's warranty), then you should alert the source of the chip immediately and obtain a replacement or refund.
The fraudulent remarking of processors is a multimillion-dollar, global criminal enterprise, involving cartels that purchase or steal the chips, remark them, and sell them for a much higher price.
The latest generation of Pentium II and Pentium III chips not only have identifying labels, they also report information about themselves to the computer on which they're running. Remarkers who tamper with this ability of the chip can force a slower chip to report that it's running faster than it actually is.
But unless a user disassembles the processor cartridge, and knows exactly what to look for, they won't even know the chip's been remarked -- until a problem arises. Remarked chips tend to burn themselves out because they run much hotter than they should and aren't adequately cooled.
"To [be able to] tell a processor is remarked requires expertise," said David Brown, who manages Intel's anti-remarking effort. Only some Intel staff and small trained law enforcement groups know what to look for.
But the new utility, which can (just barely) fit on a single floppy disk, will allow individuals to test processors themselves and make sure that they're buying the product they're paying for.
Remarkers are to the chip industry what counterfeiters of designer clothes are to the fashion industry. Using increasingly sophisticated techniques in state-of-the-art facilities, remarking operations obliterate the identifying characteristics of an older, slower chip, making it look like a newer, more valuable one. They then sell the remarked chip at the (usually higher) price of the newer one.
While the crime itself is not new to the microprocessor industry -- Intel claims it has recovered remarked chips dating back to the 1970s -- the techniques used by remarkers have evolved as the company's efforts to thwart remarking have grown more diligent.
In the early days of remarking, stickers that indicated a chip was faster were placed over the printed name of the chip. Over the years, criminal remarkers have resorted to acids and chemicals to burn off the chip's original identifiers, or grinders and polishers to eliminate them from the chip's outer surface. Intel claims that in a recent raid of a large international remarking operation, they discovered the remarkers were using the same equipment Intel uses to label the chips in the first place.
The tool only will work on the Pentium III and Pentium III Xeon processors, mainly because it requires specific information that's been built into the newest generation chips.
But the company's spokesperson was quick to point out that this utility doesn't use (or require) the controversial Processor Serial Number.
Intel is still stinging from a boycott of the Pentium III by some groups that claim the Processor Serial Number, which can identify individual users over the Internet, is an invasion of privacy. Spokesperson Manny Vara stressed in an interview that the utility doesn't invade the privacy of anyone who uses it, because the software doesn't send any information to Intel or anyone else.
"The data [from the Frequency ID utility] is only displayed on the screen" of the user running the program, Vara said, adding that the program does not secretly send this information over the Internet or by any other means.
The tool reports the rated (or intended) operating frequency of the processor, and the speed at which the processor is currently running. If the two numbers are different, there's cause for concern, Vara said.