Microsofts policy for the upcoming Service Pack 2 for Windows XP with respect to pirated copies of the operating system stirred a minor controversy in the media recently. A report elsewhere had claimed that Microsoft would be allowing even users of pirated copies to install the update.
A tad incredulous, we called to check and werent surprised to find out that Microsofts practices for Service Pack 2 (SP2) will be essentially the same as those for Windows XP Service Pack 1.
At this point, a quote from the Windows Update Privacy Statement is instructive: “Windows Update also collects the Product ID and Product Key to confirm that you are running a validly licensed copy of Windows,” the statement says.
“A validly licensed copy of Windows ensures that you will receive ongoing updates from Windows Update. The Product ID and Product Key are not retained beyond the end of the Windows Update session, unless the Product ID is not valid.”
Microsoft knows which product keys have been used for product activation, and it knows a specific list of product keys that have been pirated. In either case, if youre not on the right list, no Windows Update for you.
Now, I think the first, most important thing is that Microsoft is not only within its rights not to encourage piracy by providing fixes and upgrades for pirates, but right to do so. Whatever you think Windows is worth, the consumer cost is pretty cheap, especially as almost everyone gets it preinstalled on a new computer.
And if you dont think its worth that, the right thing to do is to use something else. If you think a car is overpriced, you dont steal the car, do you?
But thats not the only issue here. You can make a case that its in everyones interest that as many people as possible, even pirated Windows users, have good security.
Lets assume—for the sake of argument and because its what is claimed for SP2—that it greatly improves the security of Windows XP systems. The more insecure systems out there, the more attacks and threats there are against honest users.
Its the computer equivalent of a public health issue. I think of it as a bit like needle exchange. You dont want to encourage drug use, but its better that junkies use clean needles than dirty ones. (I think neither software pirates nor Microsoft will like my analogy.)
But needle-exchange programs are, of course, extremely controversial because of the moral hazard they create. The fact is, they do encourage intravenous drug use by removing one of the risks people might fear about using intravenous drugs.
And by the same token, providing patches and upgrades for software pirates encourages software piracy. There certainly are reasons why Microsoft might change this policy, but there are better reasons not to do so.
Some pirates will comfort themselves by pointing out that there are ways to get around this if youre resourceful and dishonest enough. Basically, from what Ive heard, there are tools to change the product ID on a live system.
Before you send me a note using this point as a criticism of Microsofts policy, Im not impressed, and I dont think there are particularly large numbers of people doing that.
I do think a lot of people are deterred from piracy by impediments such as those on Windows Update, and most people wouldnt think to steal software to begin with. Take a look inside, folks.
Security is a big issue, but its not the only one. Turning a blind eye toward piracy by opening the door to Windows Update would set a terrible precedent. Well make do without it.
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.
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