1999 may go down as the year when computer privacy issues came to a head. The news has been full of stories about corporate e-mail and users' files being inspected and archived by management. Now, Intel and Microsoft have inadvertently entered the privacy debate with features of upcoming products.
Intel has decided to put a "chip ID" in all its future processor chips, starting with the Pentium III. This unique number is supposed to make it a lot easier to trace stolen chips and computers, but also to help users prove their bona fides when doing business over the Internet. In theory, the chip ID would verify that a user was who he said he was (or at least, that the enquiry was coming from the correct computer). Privacy groups said this was bad because it would identify PC users when they wanted to remain anonymous. Intel countered by saying the code could be turned off by users. Now it has given in, and announced that the ID will be turned off as default, so users will specifically have to turn it on.
Cynical observers still want proof that the feature can't be secretly switched on by remote service providers who would get the information they need, then turn it off again. They contend that while the ID doesn't say who is using the PC, it can certainly be used to show a pattern of usage for individual PCs, and that amounts to much the same thing.
Microsoft's upcoming Office 2000 package will come with a little extra for some users, including Australians. Called Registration Wizard, it will "encourage" users to register their software. If they don't, it will only load 50 times, then refuse to run again until they do register. You'll probably remember that Microsoft once planned a system where Windows 95 would register itself online. As part of this process it would send a snapshot of the PC and the software that was loaded. It had to back down after huge public outcries.
While Registration Wizard will probably go ahead, I hope they've thought of everything. How does it work with site licensing, for instance? Can you imagine a thousand users all ringing their help desk on the fiftieth day after the company switches to Office 2000?!!
Next thing you know, you resellers will lobby for a licence system, so that only properly trained people will be able to buy PCs.