Business-like, isn't he?



Business in Vancouver logo

    Genuine Advantage turns into Microsoft disadvantage

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2006 First published in Business in Vancouver July 11-17 Issue #872, High Tech Office column

    One of Microsoft’s tools in its efforts to help Windows users stay safe and secure is automatic updates. On its Windows Update website, users are urged to flip a switch so that their computer will, in future, automatically download and install what Microsoft refers to as critical updates.

    In general, it’s a good thing, automatically ensuring your computer is up to date with its Windows security patches. But what if a so-called critical update isn’t designed to make your computer more secure but is only critical to Microsoft’s profit-and-loss column?

    That’s apparently the case with Microsoft’s Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA). The software checks whether Windows XP or 2000 users are running a legitimate copy of the software.

    When it runs its check, the WGA software collects the Windows serial number, PC manufacturer, operating system and bios version, and local settings and language. It then sends this information to Microsoft.

    If a user’s computer fails the validation check, it’s subject to a barrage of pop-ups suggesting ways that it can “learn about the benefits of using genuine Windows software.”

    Unfortunately, there are a large number of complaints from users claiming that WGA incorrectly flagged their legitimate copy of Windows as pirated, subjecting them to the incessant nags. Microsoft has referred to the current WGA as a “pilot version,” turning us all into unwitting beta-testers.

    Nevertheless, despite the errors, if that were all it did I would be prepared to consider this a relatively reasonable step for Microsoft to take to help combat piracy of its software products. But there’s more. WGA was listed as a critical update that was automatically downloaded and installed by many users, even though it didn’t fix a security hole. Moreover, even if your computer passes its validation test, WGA “phones home” to the Microsoft mother ship every day, behaviour that the company never bothered to mention to users until it was detailed in the press.

    Microsoft denies that WGA is spyware; others are not so sure. According to Ziff-Davis Microsoft Watch columnist Mary Jo Foley, “if users are not properly notified about exactly what software a vendor installs on their systems and/or about the function and purpose of that software, it sure sounds like spyware.”

    Back in 2002, Microsoft announced a “trustworthy computer initiative” that was going to be central to the company’s future software development efforts.

    It’s hard to imagine that Windows Genuine Advantage will make Microsoft seem more trustworthy in the eyes of its users.

Search WWW Search

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan