Kearns' column: Privacy, anonymity fanatics are all wet

I've been chortling quite a bit lately watching the privacy and anonymity fanatics jump all over Intel and Microsoft. They're upset at Intel for putting traceable ID numbers on CPUs and mad at Microsoft for embedding in documents Ethernet media access control (MAC) addresses, which show what machine created a document. As an advocate for directory services, I believe in the necessity of digital identity. In fact, I'm behind multiple digital identities (different identities for different situations, such as e-commerce and chat).

Every device attached to a network needs to have uniquely identified addresses: the MAC address of the network card, an IP (or IPX) address that contains built-in logic to help with routing, and (for IP and NetBIOS) a machine name. Many, if not most, networks also require the authenticated identity of a user of a device with a user name before using the device. This is all necessary - networks can't work without these identifiers.

Evidently the privacy fringe element isn't aware of this because it is also up in arms about Sun's Jini initiative -- a Java-based way of connecting almost any type of device to a network in plug-and-play fashion. Each device is assigned a unique number (its network address) when it's attached to the network.

Even the more well-intentioned and computer-knowledgeable privacy advocates are going off the deep end on this one. Lauren Weinstein, editor of "Privacy Forum" and a member of the Association for Computing Machinery Committee on Computers and Public Policy, worries that "once information becomes available for one purpose there is always pressure from other organisations to use it for their purposes." Followed to its logical conclusion, this sentiment would mean doing away with all identifiers (such as phone numbers) because they might be misused. Banning the use of something because it might possibly be misused is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Make the misuse illegal, then enforce the law.

Intel's Pentium III serial number and Microsoft's embedded unique identifier serve legitimate purposes. Unlike fellow columnist Scott Bradner, I don't think of this as personal data but as necessary network data. Used properly, it makes your job easier.

Dave Kearns, a former network administrator, is a freelance writer and consultant in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at

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