By ALLISON LINN, AP Business Writer
Microsoft Corp. acknowledged Wednesday that it needs to better inform
users that its tool for determining whether a computer is running a
pirated copy of Windows also quietly checks in daily with the software
The company said the undisclosed daily check is a safety measure
designed to allow the tool, called Windows Genuine Advantage, to
quickly shut down in case of a malfunction. For example, if the
company suddenly started seeing a rash of reports that Windows copies
were pirated, it might want to shut down the program to make sure it
wasn't delivering false results.
"It's kind of a safety switch," said David Lazar, who directs the
Windows Genuine Advantage program.
Lazar said the company added the safety measure because the piracy
check, despite widespread distribution, is still a pilot program. He
said the company was worried that it might have an unforeseen
emergency that would require the program to terminate quickly.
But he acknowledged that Microsoft should have given users more
information about the daily interactions.
"We're looking at ways to communicate that in a more forward manner,"
Lazar also said the company plans to tweak the program soon so that it
will only check in with Microsoft every two weeks, rather than daily.
The tool, part of the Redmond company's bid to thwart widespread
piracy, is being distributed gradually to people who have signed up to
receive Windows security updates. The company expects to have offered
it to all users worldwide by the end of the year.
Lazar said that so far, about 60 percent of users who were offered the
piracy check decided to install it. Once installed, the program checks
to make sure the version of Windows a user is running is legitimate,
and gathers information such as the computer's manufacturer and the
language and locale it is set for.
That information-gathering is disclosed in a licensing agreement. But
the agreement does not make clear that the program also is designed to
"call home" to Microsoft's servers, to make sure that it should keep
At least every 90 days, the tool also checks again to see if the copy
of Windows is legitimate. Lazar said that's because the company
sometimes discovers that a copy of Windows that it thought was
legitimate is actually pirated.
When Microsoft believes a copy of Windows is pirated, the user begins
to get a series of reminders that the copy isn't genuine. Such users
also are barred from downloading noncritical updates, such as the new
version of its Internet Explorer browser. But anyone who has signed up
to automatically receive security updates, which repair flaws to
prevent Internet attacks, will still get those fixes.
Lauren Weinstein, who is co-founder of People for Internet
Responsibility and was one of the first people to notice the daily
communications to Microsoft, said he understands and sympathizes with
Microsoft's desire to control piracy. But he said it's problematic
that Microsoft did not disclose all the program's communications with
Weinstein said he also was surprised that Microsoft decided to release
so widely a tool that it says is in a "pilot" mode and might need to
be suddenly shut down.
"Really what you're talking about is someone saying, 'Look we've put
something on your computer and it might go screwy, so we're going to
kind of check in every day,'" he said.
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Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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