Microsoft's new 'phone home' anti-piracy practice unacceptable, says critic

'At what point is one free of this' perpetual checking, asks Lauren Weinstein

The Internet advocate who blasted Microsoft in 2006 over the daily "phone home" habits of its anti-piracy software took the company to task again today for a new practice that will examine consumers' Windows 7 PCs every 90 days to make sure they're running legitimate copies of the OS.

Lauren Weinstein, the co-founder of People For Internet Responsibility (PFIR), urged Windows 7 users not to accept the option update to Windows Activation Technologies (WAT) when Microsoft begins seeding it to the Windows Update service later this month.

"The approach that Microsoft is now taking doesn't seem to make sense, even for honest consumers," Weinstein argued in a post to his blog. "Microsoft will trigger forced downgrading to non-genuine status if they believe a Windows 7 system is potentially pirated based on their 'phone home' checks that will occur at (for now) 90 day intervals during the entire life of Windows 7 on a given PC, even months or years after purchase.

On Thursday, Microsoft announced the WAT update would identify pirated copies of Windows 7 that had been illegally activated using any of more than 70 "cracks," or activation exploits. After users install the update, the WAT software will regularly connect with Microsoft's servers -- the "phone home" functionality that Weinstein called out -- to download new crack "signatures," which would then be used to reevaluate the copy of Windows 7.

The repeated validation is new to Windows, confirmed Joe Williams, the general manager of Microsoft's Genuine Windows group, who said that neither Windows XP or Vista had reevaluated already-activated Windows PCs on a regular schedule. Machines that had had significant hardware component replacements were the exception: Swapping out a motherboard, for instance, would typically trigger another activation validation.

Williams defended the change. "We want to make sure we're protecting our customers," he said, against newly-developed activation cracks that may have slipped by Microsoft, or simply not been in use, when the PC was originally activated. "And we're a commercial enterprise, and it is important that our [intellectual property] is protected."

Weinstein countered that Microsoft was overstepping its bounds by demanding validations in perpetuity. "Say you've used your system for a year. Is it reasonable for Microsoft to say, 'We changed our mind and now you're not genuine'?" asked Weinstein in an interview today. "It's one thing to validate when you originally get the system, but to do that months or years later, and [for] Microsoft [to] say, 'Now we're going to say your Windows is not genuine,' ...it becomes a matter of ownership. At what point is one free of this constant checking?"

Weinstein called the new Microsoft WAT update an "unacceptable intrusion" and more. "For Microsoft to assert that they have the right to treat ordinary PC-using consumers in this manner, declaring their systems to be non-genuine and downgrading them at any time, is rather staggering," he said.

He recommended that users reject the download of the WAT update. To do that, users may have to reset Windows Update so that it does not automatically download and install every update.

Microsoft's Williams suggested the same if users don't want Microsoft re-validating Windows. "We're pretty insistent that this is a voluntary update," he said. "And any customers who don't want WAT can uninstall the update after it's installed." The uninstall option is new for Microsoft's anti-piracy software; in the past, once installed, it could not be removed.

Weinstein may be best known to Windows users for uncovering the secret "phone home" characteristics of WAT's predecessor, Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA), when Microsoft launched an update in June 2006. The hue and cry over the feature drove Microsoft to first deny Weinstein's charge that WGA was spyware, then to retreat from the constant communication.

Today, Williams argued that the WAT update was not similar to the 2006 incident. "This is different," he said. "Why we took grief then was because of a lack of disclosure, not the functionality of the feature."

Weinstein disagreed, saying that it was the feature itself that was objectionable. "The approach represented by this kind of escalation, into what basically amounts to a perpetual anti-piracy surveillance regime embedded within already-purchased consumer equipment, is entirely unacceptable," he said.

Microsoft has not announced a date when it will begin issuing the WAT update via Windows Update -- only that it will happen this month -- but has said it will post the update on its manual download site Feb. 17.

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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