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So farewell then, Intel PSN

'Absolutely nothing to do with privacy concerns,' Chipzilla bleats

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Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Intel, that most famously-paranoid of organisations, has made a major U-turn thanks in part to paranoia from its customers and apathy from software firms. A year ago, the chip behemoth's monstro PR department was pouring supertanker loads of oil on troubled waters in a bid to quell public unrest over the processor serial number (PSN) introduced with the Pentium III. PSN would be part of all future Intel processors; it offered security benefits and helped IT departments in asset management. You can read a complete an unexpurgated question and answer document circulated to OEMs last March here. Today the company officially confirmed that PSN would die when the Pentium III line makes way for the next generation 32bit Willamette. "Intel will not implement the processor serial number feature in Willamette," said a spokesman for Intel UK. "New technologies are emerging which are better suited for security and asset management applications, such as those being promoted by the Trusted Computing Platform Alliance (TCPA), an industry wide security consortium of which Intel is a member." The new technologies referred to were listed by a highly-placed Intel insider: digital certificates, smartcards, digital signatures, MAC addresses and biometrics. Interestingly, all these technologies were around before Intel introduced PSN. If the company thought these mechanisms weren't adequate then, why are they now? "PSN just wasn't picked up by the security guys," said another Intel spokesman. "Although some of the manageability people might use it." Asked if PSN had failed to take off and had now been axed due to pressure from privacy groups, the official answer was "No." But, when pressed, the spokesman admitted: "It's probably fair to say that there is an element of negativity surrounding processor serial numbers." Software companies were also supposed to benefit from PSN in that their products could be linked to a specific machine, thus helping in the fight against piracy. A spokesman for Microsoft told The Register that M$ hadn't ever used PSN and added: "We don't know of any software company that has." Interestingly, a search for PSN information on Intel's website reveals that the decision to scrap PSN was taken relatively recently: a white paper extolling its benefits was posted here as recently as 10 days ago. This would mean that the mechanism for PSN is already part of Willamette but that it will probably be filled with a string of zeroes to prevent any applications or BIOSes searching for a serial number from falling in a heap. The Register's take on PSN remains unchanged: it never posed a threat to privacy, but was handled extremely badly by Intel. Despite vigorous internal lobbying, PSN was launched defaulting to 'on' in a fine example of Chipzilla taking little notice of what the outside world thought. For a list of earlier Register stories on PSN, click here. ®

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