This has become a frightening world to live in, particularly if the books you read at school included George Orwell's 1984. It appears that Intel and Microsoft, two companies that have a powerful influence on our lives, also read this book, but took it literally. Both have developed an unhealthy obsession with finding out who we are and what we are doing when our PCs our turned on.
Intel is using serial numbers in its microprocessors to follow us round the Internet to discover if we visit porn sites and how much we have in our bank accounts. Despite assurances that the serial number identification facility in the Pentium III has been turned off, the company admitted in a press conference at CeBIT that it would leave it to OEMs to decide whether or not to snoop on their customers. The official line is that many of the big companies that buy computers would value such a facility, and this is probably true. But that doesn't make it a good idea.
The idea that a hardware serial number guarantees security is very silly.
This will only be true when serial numbers are tattooed on users' wrists (which is not a very popular approach, as a previous German government discovered to its cost) or etched by laser onto their retinas. For internal purposes, knowing which machine did what is useful, but if you are concerned with verifying a customer transaction, for instance, the identity of the computer is neither here nor there; it's the identity of the individual that counts.
Microsoft has gone one better. When you register your copy of Windows 98 over a network, you also give Microsoft all the information it needs to trace every document you produce back to the originator. As has been reported extensively, this facility has allowed Microsoft to build a comprehensive database of customer preferences and behaviour, as well as allowing the company to keep a close eye on anyone employed by itself or any of its customers.
Microsoft has had a bit of a ticking off in the US about this, on the grounds that it's not really the done thing, but what no one but PC Week seems to have realised is that in the UK it's not just naughty it is also against the law. The Data Protection Act expressly forbids organisations from amassing customer details in this way. Microsoft has agreed to disable to facility in an interim release of Windows, but hasn't said when this will happen, so in the meantime it will continue to profit from its ill-gotten gains. Far be it from Mole to wonder whether the authorities will allow the errant company to get away with it, but it would surely set a bad example to the nation's ill-disciplined, computer-crazed youth if the world's most influential software company got off Scot free.
According to a report in the journal Science, the International Electrotechnical Commission is concerned about our imprecise use of such prefixes as kilo and mega to describe data. A kilobyte is not strictly 1,000 bytes, of course, but 1,024, and so it goes on up the scale. The busybodying boffins don't think we should be allowed to get away with such sloppy thinking and have come up with alternative terms, all of which incorporate "bi" as in "binary". So 1,024 bytes will become a kibibyte, 1,048,576 a mebibyte, and so on. "There was a need to straighten this out," according to Barry Taylor of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Mole's friend Kevin, who will now presumably have to change his name to Kibin, says they sacked the wrong commission, and he may well be right.
A member of the Microsoft legal team has written to senior executives to reassure them that the company will emerge unscathed from its brush with the Department of Justice. Needless to say, the memo has been leaked to the press, which of course was its purpose, but if we take it at face value it serves as a nice example of that mix of self-delusion and breathtaking arrogance that is Microsoft. Corporate attorney David Heiner wrote that the documents produced in evidence had been widely misinterpreted. When Microsoft wrote to competitors ordering them to "do what we want or we'll break your legs", for instance, it was simply an expression of "the intensity of competition within the software industry, routine interactions among computer companies, or internal discussions of ideas that were never implemented", he argues. Demonstrating a woeful ignorance of the law, Mr Heiner goes on to say "strong language, however, is not illegal".
Contact Mole if you wish to have details of your bloodgroup, sexual preferences and past crimes removed from the Molesoft customer database. Or call him on 0171 316 9086.
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