Microsoft admits it sent Office nag to all WSUS servers

Admins, furious, say their Office installs have been falsely fingered as fake

Systems administrators have ripped Microsoft Corp. for pushing a trial antipiracy program meant for limited distribution to all enterprise update servers, a mistake that has triggered false warnings of Office counterfeits.

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced it would kick off a pilot program for software to display nagging notices on copies of Office that it deems fake. The program, part of the Office Genuine Advantage (OGA) initiative, which already requires users to validate their software as legitimate, was to run in only four countries: Chile, Italy, Spain and Turkey. The notices would appear on machines running phony copies of Office XP (called Office 2002 by some), Office 2003 and Office 2007.

Last Tuesday, however, Microsoft published the test update to all Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) servers and did not limit its delivery to end users in Chile, Italy, Span and Turkey. WSUS is the primary update mechanism used by businesses to patch their Microsoft software. Later, Microsoft said the mistake had seeded the OGA update to WSUS servers for about 24 hours.

By early Wednesday, administrators in the U.S., the U.K., New Zealand and elsewhere were posting messages on Microsoft support newsgroups, asking why their WSUS systems had received the Office nag. In some cases, administrators reported that the update had fingered large numbers of desktop PCs as running counterfeit copies of Office.

"Update KB949810 arrived via WSUS yesterday, and now all my XP workstations running Word 2002 are telling me it needs activating," said a user identified as "morriswoodyman," who said he is in the U.K. "The only problem is that the software is genuine and was activated three years ago," the user added in a message to a Microsoft support newsgroup.

The support document that morriswoodyman referred to -- KB949810 -- is the one associated with the OGA notification update and was how WSUS labeled the update in its listings.

Another user named James, said that he is with the U.S. Army and that the systems he manages had also been falsely accused. "I have [hundreds] of systems now giving me errors," he said on the same support thread. "These are U.S. government computers with legitimate licenses! MS needs to fix this FAST!"

Some users were blunt in their criticism. "I'm legal. My software is legal," said Susan Bradley on the same newsgroup. "There is nothing more frustrating as a Microsoft shareholder to constantly see Microsoft shoot themselves in the foot by treating legal customers in this manner."

Although Microsoft representatives acknowledged that there had been a glitch as early as Wednesday, it wasn't until Friday that Microsoft issued an official explanation in a post to its WSUS team blog.

"On April 15 the Office Genuine Advantage (OGA) notifications update (KB949810) was inadvertently published to WSUS servers for approximately twenty-four hours," the company said. "This update was intended for Microsoft Office users in the pilot countries of Italy, Spain, Turkey and Chile, but because of WSUS publication, it became available to WSUS managed clients inside and outside of these intended countries."

Microsoft also said that if administrators had configured their WSUS servers to automatically approve EULAs (end-user licensing agreements), the Office nag update went out to client systems without any action on the part of the IT staff. The update, Microsoft also admitted, had been tagged as "critical" for WSUS, which contradicted the company's assertion in early April that the pilot program would be voluntary. Updates pegged as critical are downloaded and installed automatically from Windows Update to most machines.

"OGA notifications are designed to alert customers who are using nongenuine software, and are thus more vulnerable to activation exploits and the risks of counterfeit," said Microsoft in the WSUS blog post. "As such, this update was marked critical for WSUS."

That raised the ire of at least one user on the support newsgroup. "This update was deployed as a CRITICAL Update? While this may be critical to Microsoft's bottom line, any clear-thinking IT person would assume (silly me) that a critical update would be critical to IT in the sense of stability or security," said a user identified as Chris Edwards-Dawn yesterday.

"I would suggest a new classification of update titled 'Revenue Generation,'" Edwards-Dawn said. "As a corporation, we have exerted much blood, time and money on compliance. As my corporation's WSUS admin, I am considering suggesting using WSUS to block updates, not distribute them! There is nothing more frustrating than being a loyal customer, only to be treated poorly and incompetently."

As several users, including Edwards-Dawn, noted on the support newsgroup, the OGA error is not Microsoft's first mistake in its antipiracy efforts. In August 2007, for example, a Windows Genuine Advantage server outage accused an unknown number of Windows XP and Vista users of running bogus copies of the operating system; it then stripped machines of some features when it deemed them invalid.

Microsoft has also had trouble making sure WSUS was supplied with the proper updates. Last October, it apologized for pushing a Windows Desktop Search update to some PCs without getting administrator approval.

One user called on Microsoft to drop its antipiracy technology, dubbing it a "farce."

"All it does is harass the paying customers while doing zero to stop people from using your software illegally," said "ioniancat21" on Thursday. "[Windows] Genuine Advantage is a failure, will always be a failure and has no chance of being successful in anyone's lifetime."

Microsoft representatives posting messages to the same newsgroup recommended that users whose systems had been updated with the OGA notification code download the "MGADiag.exe" diagnostic tool, run it and report its findings to the company's support desk.

According to information posted on Microsoft's Web site, however, the OGA notifications update can't be uninstalled once it has made its way onto a PC.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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