Is Genuine Advantage Spyware?
I read in another newsletter that Microsoft's Genuine Advantage for Windows is spyware. Microsoft seems to be forcing it on me every time I try to update my system. Is Microsoft trying to poke into our private files with spyware?
What is Windows Genuine Advantage?
It's true that some tech writers have been saying that Windows Genuine Advantage is spyware, but I don't see any evidence to support such a claim. Let's take a step back and start with a definition...
Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) is anti-piracy software from Microsoft that checks to see if users are running a legal, licensed copy of Windows XP. If WGA detects an invalid or pirated copy of Windows, it will show periodic reminders, and will not allow the user to download certain updates such as Windows system patches, Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer 7. It does NOT prevent users from obtaining critical security fixes.
If your system fails the WGA validation, you can send in your CD or show proof that you purchased Windows, and get a licensed copy of Windows at no charge. If you don't have the CD or proof of purchase, you'll have to pay for a licensed copy. So why would anyone with a valid licensed copy of Windows object to WGA? Piracy is a HUGE problem in the software industry and results in higher costs to those who DO play by the rules.
Here's one reason: Some users have complained that their genuine copies of Windows were flagged as invalid by Genuine Advantage tool, and were upset by the periodic reminders to 'fess up and pay up. This was a problem in early versions of WGA, but later versions added additional code to help eliminate false positives, and provide an explanation of why the Windows software was flagged as invalid. There's also a Genuine Advantage Validation Issues Forum for those who need help with WGA validation.
Does Windows Genuine Advantage Phone Home?
The claims that "WGA is spyware" arise from the fact that early versions of the software did "phone home" daily to check for a new settings file. In June of 2006, Microsoft changed WGA to do this only every 14 days, and this feature will be disabled completely in versions of WGA rolled out starting November 29th.
Civil liberties activist Lauren Weinstein and tech writer Brian Livingston started making unfair claims in June 2006 that Windows Genuine Advantage was spyware being foisted on Windows XP users. Livingston called WGA a "security nightmare" and claimed that it sent "personally identifiable information back to Redmond." This was either silliness, or an attention-getting device. By their own admission, WGA sent only the user's IP address, the date & time, the manufacturer of the computer, timezone and language setting. It's common knowledge that just visiting a website reveals your IP address, the date, time, the name of your browser and operating system, and the address of the referring web page. And it's generally accepted that this "footprint" is NOT enough to personally identify a user. So how would the added fact that someone had a Dell computer in the Eastern timezone identify them personally? It wouldn't.
The real issue was Microsoft's failure to disclose all the details of what WGA does, including the purpose for the "phone home" feature. But Microsoft has addressed and clarified those issues in recent months.
Is Microsoft Forcing Users to Install Windows Genuine Advantage?
Yes and no. If you run Windows Update on auto-pilot, you'll get WGA along with your regular system updates. You can run Windows Update in "notify mode" and opt out of WGA. But you will no longer be able to download critical security fixes. You also need to accept WGA in order to install Internet Explorer 7, and it will be built in to Windows Vista, the next operating system coming from Microsoft.
So eventually, you WILL have Windows Genuine Advantage. But I think that's a good thing. Microsoft may have stumbled in the way they rolled out WGA, but they have every right to attack software piracy and insist that people are using valid licensed copies of Windows. Recent updates to the WGA software, along with clarifications about how it operates should put to rest the spyware allegations.
Got comments about Windows Genuine Advantage? Post your thoughts below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 6 Dec 2006
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