Kilo Bits - Technology News

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Windows Genuine Advantage - How far will it go?

Over the course of the past five years, Microsoft has made attempts to crack down on software piracy, namely the piracy of their own products. This is understandable, considering that Microsoft owns a staggering amount of the PC market between the Windows OS and Office suite, which is also available for the Macintosh platform, but how far is too far?

Microsoft initiated Windows Product Activation with the release of Office XP, a mandatory process that many people found as more of a hassle than anything, but these were Microsoft's baby steps. Product Activation trickled down into Windows XP, once again, providing the end user with a mandatory activation process, or else the product would be rendered virtually useless. Those who had legal copies, naturally, complied. Those who didn't found ways around it, and it did not take long, for both Office XP and Windows XP.

Hackers are always quick to the scene, and key generators and leaked volume license keys quickly flooded the Internet. Cracks to avoid the product activation were created to allow those with illegal keys unlimited access to the product. It seemed like Microsoft was beaten, though they did make valiant attempts to block the installation of their service packs if an illegal key was detected. Once more, this concept was understandable, and at the same time, it was beaten.

It wasn't until fairly recently that Microsoft decided to truly crack down on software piracy. The Windows Genuine Advantage program was started, and it initally began as a voluntary process for people to opt-in and validate their copy of Windows to receive downloads from Microsoft. Soon, this process became mandatory and even began to affect the usage of Windows Updates. Those who failed the Windows Genuine Advantage validation were steered away from the Windows Update site and presented with an error message stating that the OS was pirated. Once more, this was defeated by hackers, and Microsoft was forced to update their counter-attack. As it stands, some are still successful at bypassing it, while others cannot get around it.

The latest update in Microsoft's anti-piracy battle is now the Windows Genuine Advantage Notification tool. This controversial tool is being passed off as a security update and can be installed on your machine via the Windows Update site or Automatic Updates. You do have the option to not install it, but the average user will install it and blindly accept the EULA. This tool will then periodically display pop-up messages if your copy of Windows is deemed illegal. The controversial part, though, is that this tool phones home to Microsoft. With what information, you might ask? According to Microsoft's web site, Windows validation does not collect any personal information, but nothing is noted about the notification tool.

A Microsoft representative said that when the WGA Notifications checks in with Microsoft when a PC is booted, it is not providing any information to the vendor if a PC's copy of Windows has already been validated. Instead, it is checking with a "server-side configuration setting to determine if WGA should run or not." The check-in also gives Microsoft the ability to disable the WGA program, if necessary.

Why should this tool transmit any data at all? If its purpose is to inform the end user of a possible case of software piracy, then that should be the extent of the application. There is no purpose in "checking in" with Microsoft. To Kilo Bit, this sounds very much like the activity of a spyware application - the transmission of data to an unknown server,
albeit, the destination is Microsoft, not Claria or Zango, but the idea is the same.

Why should end users have to deal with Microsoft spyware on top of everything else one may be infected with? Kilo Bit understands Microsoft's standpoint in trying to crack down on software piracy, but there has to be less obtrusive ways to accomplish the same task.

As noted in the above article, the WGA Notification tool can be disabled through Automatic Updates, but once it is installed, you cannot uninstall it, unless you want to jump through a few hoops. If you choose to do so, Kilo Bit recommends this method of uninstallation.

So now the question is "Should I install this update?"

Kilo Bit's answer is "No". Even if you have a legal copy of Windows, why should you have a program installed that transmits information about your machine back to Microsoft every time you boot your machine? We don't, so we have not installed this update. The final decision, though, is up to you.



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