IBM to disable serial number in PIII

In response to privacy concerns over a processor serial number that is burned into Pentium III chips, IBM said it will disable the ID feature in the Pentium III computers it sells.

IBM will disable the feature at the BIOS (basic input/output system) level so that "if a consumer wants to enable the feature, they will have to do it themselves, using a BIOS set-up option," Christopher Caine, vice president for governmental affairs at IBM, wrote in a letter sent to the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) in the US.

The BIOS is the program that runs when a system is first booted up.

"Although there are constructive ways to use the processor ID feature to validate user identification, there are also legitimate privacy concerns raised by the potential misuse of this feature," wrote Caine, who said he was responding to an inquiry from the CDT about IBM's plans with regard to the processor serial number.

"We believe that the use of such identifying technology should be balanced by giving the consumer the ability to decide whether or not to activate it," Caine added.

In response, Intel spokesman Tom Waldrop said it is up to PC makers to decide whether they want to put the BIOS switch on or off. "If the goal is to have an end user be able to use the number when they want to the most easily then you could make a case that leaving the switch on in BIOS would achieve that," he said.

Intel has been in the hot seat since last month over its plans to put a serial number on all Pentium III processors, which will be available in systems this weekend. The move prompted privacy rights groups to call for a boycott of systems using the chip and the issue resurfaced this week when the hardware editor at German magazine Computer Technology said he found a way someone could turn on the ID feature even if the user has turned it off.

Intel initially touted the serial number as a way to improve security for e-commerce transactions by enabling identification. But critics have complained that the serial number will allow third parties to track the user's every move.

To mollify the critics, Intel said it would make available a software utility program that would allow users to switch the serial number function off, while requiring a hard reboot to turn it back on again. The company said yesterday there is a second option. Computer makers can put switches in the BIOS that can be used to turn the serial number function on or off.

Not all of the PC makers offering Pentium III systems have agreed to include the BIOS switch, Intel said yesterday. Intel is encouraging PC makers who do include the switch to set it to the "on" position so users will be able to take advantage of the ID feature without having to set up the option in their BIOS, an Intel executive said.

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Elinor Mills

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