Microsoft launches 'phone home' antipiracy update

Critic says Windows 7 users should block KB971033, now arriving via Windows Update (see what to look for, below)

As promised, Microsoft Corp. has started offering Windows 7 users an update to the company's antipiracy software via Windows Update.

The update to Windows Activation Technologies (WAT), the anticounterfeit program formerly known as Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA), has been slammed by critics, including the Internet advocate who blasted Microsoft in 2006 over the daily "phone home" habits of WGA running on Windows XP.

Earlier this month, Lauren Weinstein, the co-founder of People For Internet Responsibility (PFIR), urged Windows 7 users to block the optional update, calling the revamped WAT unacceptable because it will examine consumers' Windows 7 PCs every 90 days to make sure they're running legitimate copies of the operating system.

When Microsoft announced the WAT update on Feb. 11, it said the revision was necessary to detect more than 70 "activation exploits" -- that's Microsoft's term for what others call "cracks" that sidestep the product activation process or use stolen keys to illegally activate counterfeit copies of Windows 7.

At the time, Microsoft also revealed that the updated WAT would periodically "phone home" to Microsoft's servers to revalidate the copy of Windows 7 as legitimate, as well as use those opportunities to update activation signatures to detect newer cracks. Initially, said Joe Williams, the general manager of Microsoft's activation group, WAT is set to connect to Microsoft's severs every 90 days.

The repeated validation is new to Windows with the now-available update, Williams confirmed in an interview the next day. Neither Windows XP or Vista had re-evaluated already-activated Windows PCs on a regular schedule.

Windows 7 users who have Windows Update set to automatically download and install all updates will receive the WAT update -- tagged as KB971033 -- without taking any action.

To block the update, which is marked "Important," users must set Automatic Updates so that they are only notified of pending updates, or set it so that they must explicitly approve to install those updates that have already been downloaded to the PC.

As with any Windows update, KB971033 is tersely marked, showing just the cryptic "Update for Windows 7 (KB971033)" in Windows Update. Only when customers select the update does a more detailed description appear at the right. Even then, the short description doesn't note the repetitive validation feature that Weinstein called "entirely unacceptable" earlier this month.

Users whose PCs have already downloaded and installed the WAT update can uninstall it from the Control Panel. The uninstall option is also new for Microsoft's antipiracy software; in the past, once installed, WGA updates could not be removed.

Windows Update
To skip the new antipiracy software update, users must know what to look for in Windows Update.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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