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Nashville Scene Orwell and Intel

The Information Age works both ways

By James Hanback Jr.

MARCH 29, 1999:  George Orwell's book 1984 is one of those works that seemingly every literature teacher assigns, mostly so we can come to terms with the reality that personal freedom, although guaranteed in our country, is sometimes little more than a hair's breadth away from erosion.

Looking back on it, there were some things in that novel which, although they had not necessarily happened by the year 1984, could be seen as prophetic.

Someone is watching us, Orwell wrote. And we are not necessarily the ones in control of our own lives.

In the opening pages of the book, Orwell's character Winston Smith confronts the watchful, black-mustachioed apparition of "Big Brother," staring down at him from posters on the walls as he trudges upstairs. Inside a room at the top, he is eyed by a device called a "telescreen," which both sends information to the room's occupant and receives information about them at the same time.

"Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard," Orwell wrote.

Orwell's "telescreen" could be related, these days, to the World Wide Web: a place where you not only receive information via graphical Web browsers like Netscape Communicator and Microsoft Internet Explorer, but also where Web sites and corporate America can gather information about you.

In recent weeks, privacy advocates and those in the technology business have clashed over innovations that corporate America claims are designed to make things easier and more secure. Most notable is the recent controversy over Intel Corp.'s Pentium III processor, which contains a unique serial number that can be broadcast to Web sites, and could potentially be used to track individuals on the Net. As a result of the outcry and subsequent boycott of the new technology by privacy groups, Intel changed things so users could turn off the new feature, although many say that it is still not enough to protect people.

Last year, Microsoft Corp. released Windows '98, the upgrade to its operating system that finally integrated Windows with Internet Explorer, and was supposed to be more stable than its predecessor. Since its debut, users who have installed and registered the software with Microsoft Corp. have also been unwittingly subjected to a potential invasion of privacy.

It seems that Windows '98, like the Pentium III, assigns the computer on which it is installed a unique serial number, which is sent to Microsoft upon registration and also becomes embedded in documents created by the user with Microsoft Office.

Earlier this month, Microsoft admitted that it may have been harvesting serial numbers along with user names and addresses, even after customers specifically requested that such information not be disclosed. Privacy groups said the serial number, and its embedding in Office documents, made it possible for Microsoft to trace documents to a specific computer. Microsoft officials said in press statements that the company never traced documents, but planned to use the serial number to develop a new feature for Windows in which documents could be "linked" across the Internet or other networks.

Last week, the company posted two programs on its Web site (http://www.microsoft.com) to "fix" the serial number issue. One program prevents the serial number from being embedded in Office documents, while the other cleans the number from existing documents. The company also says it is purging its database of information acquired through Windows '98 customer registrations.

Some privacy groups are now requesting investigations into Microsoft's serial number controversy from organizations like TRUSTe, a company which regulates corporate Internet privacy policies (http://www.truste.org).

The Internet privacy news isn't all bad. Just before the Microsoft patches were released last week, the Better Business Bureau issued a statement that it is throwing its hat into the Internet privacy ring, perhaps indicating that the privacy concerns of Americans on the Internet are finally being taken seriously.

The BBB said last week that it will offer a "seal of approval" for Web sites if they follow guidelines established by the organization for an Internet privacy policy. Basically, seals will be handed to sites that inform visitors of the privacy policy's existence, how it works, and notifies them if and when their personal information will be shared with other parties.

So, Intel is providing "off" switches, Microsoft is making patches, and the Better Business Bureau is keeping an eye out. And with the ever-vigilant individuals and groups dedicated to privacy, George Orwell's bleak and gray world of "Big Brother" probably won't come to pass. At least not in this country.

It does pay to be vigilant. Just because Microsoft and Intel were caught and provided fixes for their privacy problems, doesn't mean there aren't others that have yet to be discovered. And just because the government isn't flying helicopters up to your windows as described in 1984 doesn't mean that someone somewhere isn't working on a way to nab credit card information off an e-commerce site you regularly use.

As Orwell wrote, "Probably she was not actually a member of the Thought Police, but then it was precisely the amateur spy who was the greatest danger of all."

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