The interests of Internet commerce and the individual's right to privacy collided again this month when Intel Corp. disclosed plans for new microchips containing embedded, electronic serial numbers that would allow individual computers to be readily identified.
The identifiers, similar to the unique vehicle identification numbers on cars, would be a kind of caller ID technology for computers. Intel said its new Pentium III microprossesers will promote the growth of Internet commerce by giving companies doing business online a better way to verify the identities of customers.
But critics saw it as an ominous development, ushering in a new period of electronic surveillance. Privacy experts fear the new Intel chips could mean the end of anonymity on the Internet.
Intel's new microprocessor can be expected to fuel the heated debate in the nation's capital over privacy. Companies have asked the government for the freedom to regulate their use of consumers' personal data. But privacy advocates and the Clinton administration have criticized those efforts, with the administration threatening legislation if more is not done to protect consumers.
The Intel microprocessor marks a fundamental turning point in the high-tech era. One of the virtues of computers until now was that users have not had to reveal their identities.
"This would appear to really seriously endanger privacy on the Internet by creating a permanent ID number for every Intel user on the Net," said David Banisar, a privacy expert with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. "It makes you wonder if maybe Intel should change their logo from 'Intel Inside' to 'Big Brother Inside."'
Intel, the world's largest maker of microprocessors, with more than 75 percent of the market in 1998 plans to ship the new microchip to computer makers by the end of March.
Later this year, Intel intends to introduce a separate technology called a random number generator to enable better encryption of computer communications and transactions. "These are pieces of a puzzle that will eventually end up causing, we hope, the Net to become much more secure than it is today," Intel spokesman Chip Mulloy said.
Besides letting online marketers assure themselves that a customer placing an order is who he says he is, the new processors would let companies create more protected "doorways" into their networks.
Like the list of names used by a doorman to screen arrivals at a private party or trendy nightclub, companies could create a lists of computers allowed access to their networks, barring all others. Attempts by hackers to obtain wrongful entry would be more readily spotted, Mulloy said.
Mulloy cited other potential benefits, from physicians and their patients being able to securely transmit medical information over the Internet to companies being able to track the whereabouts and usage of the computers within a firm. The ID codes also might make it easier to trace stolen computers, for instance.
Intel acknowledged the privacy concerns raised by the new microchip. "The flip side of security, in many people's minds, is privacy," Mulloy said. "We don't delude or kid ourselves. We know that identification can impact someone's privacy.
"One of our key objectives here is that the consumer or user has got to have control in order to maintain their privacy."
To that end, Mulloy said, after powering up computers with the new processor, consumers will be able to turn off, for that computer session, the feature that emits the serial number. Intel has designed the microprocessor so that it cannot be remotely turned on by a hacker over the Internet.
It's possible many commercial Web sites, especially those created by marketing and database firms, will restrict access by consumers who have disabled their microprocessor's identifier. "People who make the privacy choice vs. the security choice do so knowingly," said Mulloy. "They know they will not be able to do certain things."
But making it possible to turn off the ID code doesn't solve the problem, said Barry Steinhardt, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union. "Computers are already too complicated for most people," he said. "For the average consumer, it's difficult enough to know that this data will be gathered and that they will be tracked, let alone how to get the software to turn this thing off."
For privacy advocates, Intel's announcement is another example of how Americans' privacy is at ever greater risk from new technologies and an absence of comprehensive laws protecting their personal information.
Temporary software programs called "cookies" that are placed by marketers on computer user hard drives allow companies to track where someone goes on the Internet and can sometimes provide some identifying information.
Banisar referred to Intel's new chip as "a super cookie, a nuclear cookie."
"It's really another illustration," Steinhardt said "of how the tools that are available to invade our privacy are being created much more rapidly than the regime of legal protection for our privacy."
He added that privacy advocates would use the Intel development to lobby government officials for greater privacy protections.