NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article
Privacy? What Privacy?
by Don Two, April 99
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No doubt you have heard the furor about Intel's embedding a unique serial number in each new Pentium III chip which can be used to identify your computer anytime you reach a site on the Internet.

Intel says the move was an innocent attempt to help them fight theft and other unlawful practices by competitors and users. At worst, it would permit compiling a profile of our surfing, shopping, software usage, and other computer-related behavior. This could be invaluable to marketers targeting certain market segments.

Privacy groups have been complaining something fierce. Some members of congress have indicated a need for legislation.

Then, hot on the heels of the Intel story, came the revelation that Microsoft has imbedded a unique number in each copy of Windows 98!

They say that they are losing billions of dollars yearly to software piracy. I can see how it might well tell them when they receive calls from the same serial-numbered Windows 98 system for help, bug fixes, updates, etc from different computer owners or email addresses. But, it seems to me that it would also permit the same excesses I listed above.

But the worst shock of all was described in Paul Somerson's column in the April 99 issue of PC Computing. He reported on a sexual harassment lawsuit in Minnesota.

The woman was the subject of off color and objectionable comments by a superior. The suit followed a very usual pattern until the woman's attorneys asked a routine question, but got a surprising answer.

They asked the company's executives whether there was any other company record that could shed light on the issue.

Their reluctant answer may shake the PC industry!

It seems that, in 1996, a new IEEE RFC 0401 PC/Telephony standard was established for all computers to be manufactured thereafter. The new standard requires the addition of a small 25-cent microphone, intended solely to support those users who want to use their computer for two-way telephone communications.

In fact, it records and files in a special place, all conversation within five feet of the computer while it is on!

Then, the company's executives, under oath, had to reveal a dirty little secret. They admitted that their own Information Technology department was routinely using special Speech Collection and Compression Software. It will collect and compress recorded sounds from the special files on each user's computer. They said that this capability was common knowledge among IT departments in most businesses, and that many do the same thing.

They admitted that they were routinely, but randomly, collecting, sampling, and listening in on some of their own employees' conversations. Experts were able to root through the mountain of recordings and find the alleged harasser's computer, listen to all the recorded conversations. Fate decreed that the relevant conversation WAS among the samples collected. It proved the woman's case!

Ain't science wonderful? Now, it is great that the young woman was able to prove her case, and that the perpetrator was fired.

But, now, how many of my conversations have been collected over the Internet from my post-1996 computers? How many of yours?

Privacy advocates are up in arms, and are suing to rescind the Telephony standard. How can we protect ourselves from this invasion of privacy?

The cheapest microphones in many cases are mounted behind one tiny pinhole in the computer case. Or, very powerful microphones are mounted directly on the motherboard, making them even harder to notice.

Software developers are hard at work producing programs which will determine whether any snooping has occurred, let you listen to any sound files which may still be on your disk, and to disable the microphone. I will pursue these and shere with you what I find. More later.

Big brother is not only watching, he is listening!

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