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03/29/2006 Archived Entry: "Another threat to privacy"

They keep coming even after someone puts a stake through their heart.

Remember the dust-up over Intel's plans to put unique serial numbers on every CPU? Their Processor Serial Number (PSN) was quickly dubbed Big Brother Inside. After a storm of criticism and countless examples of how this technology could be misused, Intel "de-featured" the PSN "due to perceived privacy concerns."

As so often happens today, what appeared to be a victory was merely a reprieve. Today's War Street Journal reports that a company called Absolute Software has convinced Dell, Gateway, Lenovo, and Hewlett-Packard to embed their Computrace in the BIOS.

Once activated, Computrace pings Absolute's servers daily. If the machine is reported as stolen, Absolute instructs the machine to ping every 15 minutes. They trace the IP address, notify police, and catch the thief.

Except sometimes the person with the stolen laptop isn't the thief. The WSJ article recounts the tale of a soldier in Iraq who had purchased what turned out to be stolen laptop. Given today's habit of deploying SWAT teams even for routine work such as serving warrants, its only a matter of time before we have anoither tragedy like the recent murder of a Virginia doctor.

The company claims that the customer has to activate the service (and pay them, of course) but surely the software can be activated without telling the owner. Imagine a repressive government that not only forces all laptops sold to have the spyware on, but monitors traffic directed at Absolute's servers, or even manages to reprogram the destination address of the ping. What still passes for free speech or harmless web surfing in North America can be an automatic death sentence in some places.

The potential for abuse is dreadful, and essentially identical to everything that was hashed out in the Intel PSN debacle. Embedding the snitch in the BIOS makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to remove. Perhaps some clever hackers will publish ways to defeat this spyware. Until then, anyone who values their privacy can't afford to buy computers from Dell, Gateway, Lenovo, or Hewlett-Packard.

Posted by Silver @ 09:52 AM CST

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