Microsoft blackballs pirates from getting free Security Essentials software

Security suite installs only on legit Windows

Microsoft will block users running counterfeit copies of Windows from installing the free Security Essentials antivirus software, the head of the company's anti-piracy group said yesterday.

Security Essentials, which launched early Tuesday, is basic anti-virus and anti-spyware software that Microsoft touts as suitable for users who can't, or won't, pay for security.

"During installation, you'll be asked to validate Windows running on your PC to make sure that it's genuine," said Alex Kochis, director of Microsoft's Genuine Windows team, in a post to a company blog Tuesday. Genuine Windows is the umbrella label for several of the company's anti-piracy technologies, including product activation and the often-criticized validation and notification components, which regularly determine whether the copy of Windows running on a PC is legitimate.

Part of Security Essentials' installation process requires that users validate Windows. "Microsoft Security Essentials is available to customers running a genuine and properly licensed copy of Windows," the first installation dialog box reads. PCs that fail the validation check will display a second dialog that provides a link to the section of Microsoft's site where users can purchase -- or in some cases receive a free copy -- of Windows.

Although Microsoft blocks pirates from downloading other free software it offers, it regularly makes major exceptions. Internet Explorer 8 (IE8), which Microsoft has billed as its most secure browser to date, can be downloaded and installed on a counterfeit copy of Windows, for example. And Microsoft lets people running bogus copies Windows obtain security patches via Windows Update.

On-again, off-again debates about the wisdom of blocking security-oriented downloads like patches or defensive software have centered around the argument that Microsoft should protect all users, including pirates, since hijacked PCs threaten the entire Windows ecosystem. In this case, though, one analyst isn't buying that line.

"I can't see any justification for making Microsoft give away Security Essentials [to counterfeit Windows users]," said John Pescatore, Gartner's primary security analyst. "Those people have many other choices, including free. There are plenty of alternatives to Security Essentials," he said, adding that that makes a difference. Windows patches, on the other hand, aren't available from anyone but Microsoft.

"It's like when you buy a car. If you buy a Ford, the company should have to fix the car when there's a recall, whether you bought the car from them, or bought it used from someone else," said Pescatore. "But if Ford said they were going to give all current owners free satellite radio, does that mean they have to give it away to everyone, including people who bought it used or even who bought Chevys?"

Microsoft Security Essentials won't install unless users prove they're running a legitimate copy of Windows.
Microsoft Security Essentials won't install unless users prove they're running a legitimate copy of Windows.

Security Essentials can be downloaded for Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 from Microsoft's Web site.

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