Computers

Sitting in the comfort of your own home reading this from the internet? How do you know that what you're reading isn't being monitored? It could be. Easily.

There are a few ways of finding out what you're doing online. Your ISP could be logging every web site, usenet newsgroup or email that you access. Sure it's a lot of data, but several companies monitor their employees email to make sure that they're not abusing the system or giving away confidential information. Your ISP could be doing the same to you.

On the other hand, your internet connection is probably a dial-up link using a modem. If so, then the call is being placed through the public telephone network. This in turn, is reputedly monitored by the US NSA (see Telephones: Landlines for more information). All the data you send and receive is unencrypted, unless you're encrypting your emails, which is very easy to eavesdrop on.

If you are encrypting your emails, the only way to do it is with very strong encryption algorythms, like Phil Zimmer's Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP. Phil released PGP on the internet and it spread quickly. This attracted the US Government's attention because the encryption algorythm Phil used was extremely strong. While not unbreakable, the coded messages can take days to decipher, even for the experts.

The Government were so strung out about this that Phil was in very real danger of being imprisoned for releasing the software. For those not in the know, the US Government, despite what you might think, strictly controls the export of computer hardware and software, particularly software containing encryption algorythms. They're so strict, that their export control policies have been forced on companies in other countries also.

The old, tried and trusted method of monitoring what you're doing on a computer is to monitor the Electromagnetic Interference (EMI) that your computer generates. This was used quite a lot during the Cold War by both the Americans and the Soviets to spy on each others embassies. It would still be a possible target for industrial espionage today.

Intel announced that their new Pentium III chip, originally known as Katmai, will have a 'serial number' feature which can be read by software running on your computer.   While this sounds like a useful addition to the processor as it could help track stolen computers, or ensure the authenticity of electronic commerce tranactions, it raises the issue of online privacy.

Software, like Microsoft's office, would be able to tell the serial number of the CPU it was running on.  Couple this to an internet connection and the possibilities are endless.  Does this new technology leave virtual fingerprints?

It is understood that the Pentium III chips will be shipped with this feature turned off, though they previously stated that it would be turned on - but the BIOS functions of your PC should allow this to be reactivated, which may be done by PC vendors prior to sale.  Some groups are so concerned about this new feature that they have called for a boycott of Intel products until the serial number is removed.


Back to main index
Vendemen - 27 January 1999