CyberTech Rambler

June 12, 2006

Microsoft: Windows Genuine (Dis)Advantage not a spyware

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 3:00 pm

Microsoft responded to the growing controversy about Windows Genuine (Dis)Advantage (WGA) phoning home every day. I blog a little about it in a previous post. In this post, I want to discuss about whether is a spyware.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft says it is not. The basis of their assertion (see the linked article) is that they got user consent. I haven't checked, but I am willing to bet that you will find a small print in the "Terms and Conditions" that says you consented to whatever Microsoft says it does.

Most people will agree that there is two important parts about spyware: (1)It collects and transmit information to a third party and (2)It did it without consent. If both are satisfied then everyone agrees it is a spyware. Most will agree an even worse crime is spyware that modify one's computer.

Like everything in real life, it is not that clearcut for a lot of application. This includes WGA. From a consumer viewpoint, my view is anything that contact the anyone without making it explicitly clear or in an inappropriate manner qualify as spyware. This means I had degenerated the two essential parts to (1)Transmit anything at all to a third party as I know that there is a lot of information that can be analyzed by the third party with a simple empty packet and (2)Did not make it clear to me that it is phoning home, or phoning home in an inapproprate way. Moreover, it is only necessary to satisfy one component, not both to make an application a spyware.

Microsoft had admitted that WGA phone home inappropriately, when they say they "should had keep users better informed". Looking at their offer to "only call home forthnightly", it is my opinion that they believe the inappropriate part is that it is done daily. Let's tackle it first, and treat it in the broader context of whether the issue of WGA phoning home is made clear to the user.

Until this incident comes to light, I am only aware that WGA requires I have to proof myself to Microsoft before I get Updates. Given the fact that no software is perfect, WGA has the potential to give me, an genuine Windows user, headache in the future if and when the software mistaken me as a pirate, and that I am force-fed this WGA program that I cannot opt-out, I am still willing to submit myself through the humilation WGA put me through, as I recognize that Microsoft has a market to protect and should be given every opportunity to protect the market from pirates. After all, if you are a genuine user, you do not have to fear the program, aren't you? AS I UNDERSTAND IT, the check is only done when I try to update my Windows. Small price to pay to remove those high-tech leeches from China and protect the industry. I don't like it as I cannot see any benefit to myself, but I am going to adopt a give-and-take attitude.

As you can see, WGA was sold to me as small inconvenience that I must endure for public good (fewer pirates, if that is at all possible). Having WGA challenge me I try to update Windows is fair, but I am not prepare to submit to the humiliation of being challenged everyday to prove that I have a legitimate copy of Windows. That's too much. It was not made clear to me or otherwise I would rather not upgrade. Hence, as far as I am concerned, the proper consent have not been obtained. Although I might had click the button agreeing to the "Terms and Conditions", whatever permission Microsoft had was obtained through deception. For other users, one can say agreeing to T&C consititute some form of coercion.

While I can see smaller companies use the tactic of small prints in "T&C" to trap users this way, a reputatble company like Microsoft should NOT have to defend them through these dodgy small prints.

As for the fact that no information is transmitted to Microsoft during they daily phone home, I had made it clear in my opposition to Sony's DRM calling home, transmitting "empty packet" home gives the receipient an opportunity to collect information it would normally not have the opportunity to. Hence, it is not content that counts, but the act of transmission. I am not changing my stance here.
Now come the crunch, the most evil thing a spyware can do to you is to modify your computer. This gives it a virus-like function. Microsoft admits that WGA actually check and update its configuration file in your computer. Apparently, one of the stated function is to shutdown WGA to protect your computer in case of malfunction. This is just simply an excuse as the best way of protecting my computer is not to run WGA at all unless when it is absolutely necessary. This facility is at best a trojan horse to intrude into my computer and shut me off if Microsoft thinks my Windows is a pirated copy. While I support shutting down Windows for priated copy, this flip-off switch is too much to bear for a genuine user.

As far as I am concerned, Microsoft did not have my permission to call home everyday. Eventhough there is nothing collected at Micosoft's end beyond standard log information does not change the fact that Microsoft is now in pocession of information it would otherwise not have (spying). WGA is a spyware. The fact that it also modify one file on my computer troubles me more.


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