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Microsoft &  Windows '98 Privacy Issue

Microsoft Corp. will fix a flaw in Windows 98 that allowed the software
giant to collect unique computer identifying information without a user's
knowledge, said company executives.
But a software programmer who detected the problem said he remained
concerned Microsoft was amassing a huge database that theoretically could
be used to track down the authors of individual documents.
Rob Bennett, a group product manager at Microsoft, said the company
learned on Friday that Windows 98 users were transmitting a unique
hardware identification number during the registration process -- even
when they specifically elected not to send data about their hardware.
The problem first was disclosed in Sunday's New York Times.
Bennett said the bug would be fixed in an update to the widely used
8-month-old operating system, expected to be released over the summer.
The issue affects only users whose computers have Ethernet adapter cards,
most common in office computers connected to a local area network, but it
raises new questions about privacy in a world in which people increasingly
exchange electronic information over the Internet.
Microsoft also said it plans to eliminate a feature in its Office 97 word
processing and spreadsheet software after concerns were raised about the
use of the hardware identification number to generate unique numbers for
each document.
"We're very, very concerned about privacy issues and the perception of
privacy issues, so this is not going to be there in Windows 2000," said
Steven Sinofsky, a Microsoft vice president.
Richard Smith, president of Phar Lap Software Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.,
said he discovered the Office and Windows issues and brought them to
Microsoft's attention after privacy concerns were raised about
identification numbers on Intel Corp's. new Pentium III computer chips.
"I was explicitly looking for a problem like this," said Smith, whose
company produces industrial operating systems and software development
tools, including many that support Microsoft platforms.
He said he was concerned that Microsoft is building a database of Ethernet
addresses that "allows them to track where documents came from."
And he said he suspected that the automatic transmission of Ethernet
addresses in the Windows 98 registration process was part of an effort by
the company to detect software piracy.
"I don't think this is a bug,'' he said. "I think it's very intentional."
Microsoft's Bennett denied the machine identification numbers were being
used in anti-piracy efforts.
And he said Microsoft's database of such numbers -- provided during the
optional registration process -- is used only when users call the company
for technical support.
"We're not using these IDs for marketing or for tracking user behaviour,"
he said. "It's not something were interested in doing. It's not something
they're designed to do."
Sinofsky, who heads up Microsoft's Office operations, said that because
anybody could use a given computer or change identifying information on a
document, it was "not conceivable" that a specific document could be
linked to a specific person. But he acknowledged there was a legitimate
"emotional" element to such concerns.
"I would say most people don't quite get how computers work, and they're
suspicious of computers in general," he said. "That's probably why a lot
of these privacy concerns are happening."