[ISN] Microsoft Alters Windows in Response to Privacy Concerns

From: mea culpa (jerichoat_private)
Date: Sun Mar 07 1999 - 00:19:01 PST

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    March 7, 1999
    Microsoft to Alter Software in Response to Privacy Concerns
    SAN FRANCISCO -- The Microsoft Corporation moved to defuse a potentially
    explosive privacy issue today, saying it would modify a feature of its
    Windows 98 operating system that has been quietly used to create a vast
    data base of personal information about computer users.
    Microsoft conceded that the feature, a unique identifying number used by
    Windows and other Microsoft products, had the potential to be far more
    invasive than a traceable serial number in the Intel Corporation's new
    Pentium III that has privacy advocates up in arms. The difference is that
    the Windows number is tied to an individual's name, to identifying numbers
    on the hardware in his computer and even to documents that he creates.
    The combination of the Windows number with all these data, the company
    said, could result in the ability to track a single user and the documents
    he created across vast computer networks. Hackers could compromise the
    resulting data base, or subpoenas might allow authorities to gain access
    to information that would otherwise remain private and unavailable.
    Privacy advocates fear that availability will lead to abuses.
    "We're definitely sensitive to any privacy concerns," Robert Bennett,
    Microsoft's group product manager for Windows, said.
    "The software was not supposed to send this information unless the
    computer user checked a specific option."
    Mr. Bennett said the option to collect the information had been added to
    the software so that Microsoft support employees would be able to help
    users diagnose problems with their computers more accurately. He said the
    Redmond, Wash., software giant had never intended to use the data for
    marketing purposes.
    In response to a complaint from a software programmer in Massachusetts,
    Microsoft will not only alter the way the registration program works in
    the next maintenance release of Windows 98, Mr. Bennett said. He said
    Microsoft technicians would look through the company's data bases and
    expunge information that had been improperly collected as a result of
    earlier versions.
    The company is also exploring the possibility of creating a free utility
    program that would make it possible for Windows users to delete the serial
    number information from a small data base in the part of Windows system
    known as the registry, where it is now collected.
    Microsoft has been discussing the issue with a Cambridge, Mass.,
    programmer who contacted the company earlier this week after discovering
    that the Microsoft Office business software was creating unique numbers
    identifying a user's personal computer and embedding them in spreadsheet
    and word processing documents.
    The programmer, Robert M. Smith, who is the president of Phar Lap Software
    Inc., a software tools development company, told the company that he
    believed the practice created a potential threat to privacy. 
    Microsoft officials said earlier this week that the numbers generated by
    the company's software were part of an effort to keep different components
    from interfering with each other in an increasingly complex world of
    networked computers.
    However, Mr. Smith said that the number, in effect, created a "digital
    fingerprint" that could be used to match a document created by a word
    processing or spreadsheet program with a particular computer.
    On Thursday, after further studying the "registration wizard" -- the
    software module that enables customers to register their copies of Windows
    98 operating system for support and updates -- Mr. Smith discovered that
    the number, known as a Globally Unique Identifier, was being transmitted
    to Microsoft as part of a list of registration information that generally
    includes the owner's name, address, phone number and other demographic
    information as well as details about the hardware and software on or
    attached to the user's computer.
    "Microsoft never asked me if it was O.K. to send in this number, and they
    never said it was being sent," Mr. Smith said. "They are apparently
    building a data base that relates Ethernet adapter addresses to personal
    Ethernet adapters are cards inserted in a personal computer that enable it
    to connect to high-speed networks within organizations and through them to
    the Internet. 
    The controversy erupted just weeks after Intel, maker of the most widely
    used processors for machines that use the Windows operating system, agreed
    to make it possible for computer manufacturers to set its new Pentium III
    computer chip so that a serial number on the chip would not be recorded
    without the computer user's permission.
    Privacy activists have been attacking both companies, arguing that
    identification numbers can be easily misused to create electronic
    monitoring systems. Such systems could track a computer user's behavior in
    cyberspace or create dossiers of personal information about individuals.
    The issue has sparked a heated debate over the fundamental technology of
    modern computer networks and software systems, which routinely employ
    serial numbers to identify individual computers and software modules,
    known as "objects," that can be shared by a number of programs.
    But the Intel number only identified a computer. The Windows number
    identifies a person. And because the Windows number created a potential
    linkage between individuals and confidential documents they created,
    privacy advocates said they were outraged.
    "I think this is horrendous," said Jason Catlett, president of
    Junkbusters, a consumer privacy organization based in Greenbrook, N.J. 
    "They're tattooing a number into each file. Think of the implications. If
    some whistle blower sends a file, it can be traced back to the person
    himself. It's an extremely dangerous feature. Why did they do it?"
    Privacy groups have long warned about the dangers of centralized
    information and of monitoring electronic behavior. The groups have been
    discussing the implications of the serial number on the Pentium III with
    Intel, and while some privacy advocates acknowledge that the number can
    play an important role in protecting both privacy and security, others
    have called for a boycott of Intel, arguing that the likelihood of misuse
    of the number outweighs its benefits.
    Beyond the fear of a centralized Big Brother, they add that the rise of
    the Internet has made it possible for individual companies to freely use
    detailed personal information for commercial ends.
    "The problem is the absence of legal rules that limit the collection and
    use of personal information," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the
    Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.
    "It's clear to me that large Internet companies such as Microsoft, AOL and
    Netscape will try to squeeze out privacy."
    Microsoft executives said on Friday evening that they had developed the
    feature for technical reasons related to the need to distinguish between
    millions of different hardware and software objects on the Internet. They
    said they had never considered the privacy implications.
    According to Microsoft software engineers, the roots of the company's
    numbering system go back to a system developed by computer researchers at
    the Open Software Foundation in Cambridge in the early 1990's.
    In an effort to develop technology that would enable computer systems to
    communicate across a network, a numbering system known as a Universally
    Unique Identifier, or UUID, was established as part of a software standard
    known as the Distributed Computing Environment, or DCE.  Microsoft relied
    on this standard when it developed a remote computing capability for
    Windows known as Object Linking and Embedding, or OLE.
    The company's designers changed UUID to GUID, for Globally Unique
    Identifier, and that term is now widely used by software applications.
    For example, the GUID is used in setting "cookies" -- files that World
    Wide Web sites send to a visitor's hard drive to identify the user later
    and to track his or her travels through the Web. 
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