After Intel's recent announcement that the Pentium III chip would include a unique Processor Serial Number that could be transmitted across the Web, privacy groups immediately sounded the alarm. Dave Amis considers whether they hold justifiable privacy concerns.
Intel, the world's largest computer chip maker is to start selling it's Pentium III chip in Britain on 26 February 1999. The new chip includes technology that allows a Processor Serial Number (PSN) embedded in the chip to be read by Web sites. The PSN enables sites to verify and identify the machine used by the user. Privacy groups such as Privacy International, Junkbusters and EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) are outraged by Intel's plans and have called for a boycott of all Intel products to force the company to reverse its decision.
According to Intel, the PSN would help companies selling goods and services online to eliminate fraud by verifying a consumer's identity. This is considered to be an important step forward by those involved in the rapidly growing area of ecommerce. Since the PSN could be transmitted internally as well, it would potentially reduce piracy by making it impossible for software to be copied onto more than one machine unless permitted by the developer. Intel announced that 30 software vendors and Web service providers were planning to use the PSN. According to Dennis Winderbank, secretary of the Enterprise Network User Group the PSN is "A superb idea, provided we can get access to it".
The PSN is the latest development in technology enabling web sites to identify their visitors. Already owners of web sites can identify the operating system, browser and IP address of visitors.
Despite widespread concerns about security and fraud in ecommerce, the reaction to Intel's announcement has been hostile in some quarters. Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, a New Jersey based Internet privacy and anti-spam group, said the feature would: "Help junk mailers leapfrog towards the direct marketing nirvana of being to be able to track and target every movement of every consumer in cyberspace".
Intel met with privacy groups at the end of January in a bid to convince them to end their boycott. The groups responded to Intel by threatening to expand the boycott to include any computer manufacturers that sell machines using the Pentium III chip. They also said they would consider asking the Federal Trade Commission to file a complaint against Intel. By way of justification of the escalation, Jason Catlett said: "The distributors of a privacy toxin are as liable as the manufacturers of a privacy toxin".
Privacy groups are determined that they will keep going until they force Intel to back down. After a meeting with Intel, Marc Rotenberg of EPIC said: "I think at the end of the meeting they were a little taken aback. They thought we were going to work together to teach people how to use their software...We basically said that approach won't work".
The groups are angered by the actions of Intel and are determined to force a retreat. They fear that the Pentium III chip will make it too easy for direct mailers to target potential customers on the Net with spam. Jason Catlett's of Junkbusters fears that PSN will create a "direct marketing nirvana". This indicates that the objections of the privacy groups are as much about the commercialisation of the Net as they are about the preservation of anonymity.
In a joint statement, the privacy groups expressed their anxieties: "We conclude that it is contrary to the public interest in privacy for chips with an (ID) to proliferate widely into the consumer computer market. Given Intel's dominance of the processor market, this would happen within a few months unless sufficient pressure were applied to Intel to disable the feature in the Pentium III".
Net users value their anonymity and are wary about anything that threatens it. There are many instances where anonymity is important for Net users. Dissidents criticising repressive regimes and participants in newsgroups dealing with sensitive issues such as abuse, expect and are entitled to anonymity. The removal of a guarantee of anonymity could stifle discussion of controversial and sensitive issues.
However, there are problems in the way that privacy groups view anonymity on the Net. Concern about privacy has moved beyond the way it was traditionally understood, namely the defence of individual autonomy in the face of intrusion from the state. Many of the anxieties are now about information held by commercial organisations on our purchasing habits or the kind of Web sites we visit - information used to send targeted sales propositions to Net users.
While these propositions may be an irritant, they cannot be seen in the same way as the fear of persecution from the state by someone expressing a dissenting political opinion. Whilst Net users can ignore a sales pitch, they can't ignore a government intrusion in to their lives. The problem is that the privacy groups conflate widely differing concerns about privacy and anonymity. Fears about the commercialisation of the Net are being given equal status to genuine concerns about state intrusion into people's lives. The result of this is that genuine abuses of privacy and anonymity are trivialised.
Accountability and transparency are wholly desirable. With ecommerce, there are obvious benefits in the parties involved in a transaction being able to verify each other's identity. There are numerous online discussions in chat rooms, on bulletin boards and in newsgroups where it benefits the participants to know who they are talking to or exchanging views with. Anonymous postings to debate forums lose all credibility if the poster lacks the courage of their convictions to be honest about who they are. In journalism, the "anonymous source" has little credibility if the origin of their information cannot be verified.
It is ironic that the Internet, which is a revolution in communications with the potential to bring people together, is instead fostering an almost obsessive desire for anonymity and privacy. People, being mistrustful of the motives of others, only feel safe using the Internet if they can hide behind a protective facade of anonymity, regardless of what they are doing.
This lack of trust and a desire for privacy reflects a broader social context in which society is becoming more fragmented, leaving people feeling more isolated and fearful. This is reflected in the discussions about the PSN, where instead of being open and honest with each other, people tend to automatically assume the worst in others and act accordingly.