Big Microsoft Brother

 
 
By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2006-06-09
 
 
 

It turns out that Microsofts Genuine Advantage anti-piracy program is also keeping daily tabs on Windows users. Who knew?

Well, until a few days ago, nobody outside of Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash., knew.

According to an Associated Press report, David Lazar, director of the WGA (Windows Genuine Advantage) program, Microsoft was doing this as "kind of a safety switch."

A safety switch?

Because, Microsoft told top Microsoft reporter in the known-world Mary Jo Foley that "if Notifications went amok on Microsofts side, Microsoft wanted a way to terminate the program quickly."

Amok? On Microsofts side?

Help me out. Im a little confused here. Microsoft wants my Windows PC to phone home everyday so that if Notifications went amok on their servers, it would turn my local Notifications component off?

How genuine is Windows Genuine Advantage? Click here to read more.

Now, when you use Windows Genuine Advantage for the first time, it gathers up, Microsoft tell us, and it will grab your PCs XP product key, PC manufacturer, operating system version, PC BIOS information and user locale setting and language.

Nothing at all, Microsoft assures us, that could identify us or what programs we use, or anything like that. No siree. No chance of that.

So ... why do we need that daily Notification ping?

Good question. I guess we really dont need it that much because Microsoft has also clarified that, "As a result of customer concerns around performance, we are changing this feature to only check for a new settings file every 14 days. This change will be made in the next release of WGA. Also, this feature will be disabled when WGA Notifications launches worldwide later this year."

I dont mean to be paranoid, but when someone tells me that, oh, by the way, theyve been checking on my XP and Windows 2000 PCs every day since July 2005 when Microsoft made WGA mandatory or you couldnt download patches, I get a little concerned.

Still, its not like Microsoft would actually collect more information and then use it against such competitors as Firefox would they?

Oh wait, come to think of it, didnt Microsoft once cause Windows to produce fake error messages if a user was running DR-DOS instead of MS-DOS?

While they never admitted to it, they did finally end up paying Caldera Systems, one of the ancestors of todays SCO, approximately $60 million to make the resulting lawsuit go away.

No, nothing like that has happened. I mean maybe theyre using WGA to report on what applications people are really using for market information, but thats harmless isnt it? I mean lots of spyware, ah, programs do that, right? Of course.

OK, let me be straight for a minute. Theres no proof whatsoever that Microsoft is actually doing anything to anyone elses software or tracking information on their users.

Well, except when you try to update a WGA program thats running on Wine, an open-source implementation of the Windows API (applications program interface) that runs on x86 Linux and Unix OSes like Solaris and FreeBSD. Those users wont be able to get patches. Lets leave that aside for now.

Heres the point. For over a year, Microsoft has planted a program on every modern Windows-powered PC that reported home every day. They dont have an intelligent reason, never mind a good one, for this move. And, they never told anyone that they were doing this.

I guess it must do a darn good job of hiding itself from firewalls and network monitoring tools too since weve only now found out this daily checkup call after tens of millions of PCs have been phoning in for almost a year.

Maybe you can trust your computer, your livelihood, your home finances, your kids games, everything you do online, to a company that would do that, but you can count me out.

Ive been using Linux for my main desktop for years, and its revelations like this one that makes me damn glad that I do.

Ziff Davis Internets Linux and Open-Source Linux Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been working and writing about technology and business since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

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