Is Genuine Advantage Spyware?

Category: Windows

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?

windows genuine advantage

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...

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Most recent comments on "Is Genuine Advantage Spyware?"

Posted by:

Michael Rusch
15 Dec 2006

I can identify with those frustrated by false positives. Though my Dell factory install of Windows was WindowsUpdated to the hilt, I never got a version of the tool that gave me an indication as to what the problem was, as mentioned in the article. I hope that the forum holds some promise for those who are suffering this fate, and they don't wind up following me down the format-and-reinstall path (which seems to have worked, btw). While I'm firmly against piracy and understand the need for the tool, I can sympathize with the frustrated non-pirates out there.

Posted by:

15 Dec 2006

Bob, Brian Livingston's concern was that WGA's early versions showed phone home activity and had the built in capability to self-update and install other software. This without any notification to the user.

I agree entirely that they have every right to expect you to purchase their product if you use it. But treating your customers like criminals is not the way to do it.

EDITOR'S NOTE: What good software does NOT have an auto-update feature? All anti-virus programs do this, Windows itself does this, even Firefox does it! Major red herring...

Posted by:

15 Dec 2006

If you're running tor websites can't always find your ip address, why should microsoft be able to? They could also file a lawsuit to find out your identity if they have your ip and if they won they could get it and then sue you. Whether or not you are pirating their software, anti-piracy should never be grounds for a lawsuit in my book. I'm boycotting them by not buying anymore of their products, and I'm switching to gnu linux. Join me. -P.S. Sometimes software is good partially because it doesn't have an autoupdate feature due to the fact that the newer version of the software is more buggy, more expensive, or just not as good, in my opinion.

Posted by:

15 Dec 2006

Treating your customers like criminals, by default, IS NOT THE HONORABLE WAY TO RUN A BUSINESS. In fact, I choose to run far from companies that do so.

This ridiculous concept is becoming common practice in both the brick & mortar world and the software world and I for one am sick to death of being treated like a common criminal and thief. If this is the new future of commerce, I opt out.

Posted by:

15 Dec 2006

Give me a break Bob!!! Microsoft as with all of mega companies, makes BILLIONS of dollars from all of us that pay for their underdeveloped crap-o-software! More power to those who continue to use "illegal" software. Maybe, someday, Billy G. will start releasing quaility software.

Also, Bob, you stated, "Piracy is a HUGE problem in the software industry and results in higher costs to those who DO play by the rules." Now Bob, both you & I know that this is a bunch of BS. A retail copy WinXP cost today almost exactly what it did when it was released. The same goes for MS Office. As a software Analyst I can understand your argument... well actually I don't. Bob, let's keep it real this holiday season!

EDITOR'S NOTE: You applaud those who steal software, and want me to "keep it real"? Hmmm...

Posted by:

18 Dec 2006

Heh, it was always likely this little gem was gonna create some 'talkback' ;-) . I can kind of see both sides of the argument but lean towards Microsofts attempts to protect it's product/business whilst agreeing totally that they went about it totally the wrong way - you would think they would have learned by now... thus creating yet another 'hate MS' whirlwhind.

I have no issue with them having an update process that checks to make sure the copy of windows on your machine is genuine and licensed. The update tool in itself is kind of running just like an AV prog, ensuring the OS is protected. In fact I run a support business and it came in rather handy when we discovered that my predecessor with one of my clients, let's just call him Captain Dodgy, had installed bogus copies of windows in a business environment - they were still paying for this recently in downtime. WGA helped to identify these machines so we could fix the problem.

I think most of the outcry on this is thanks to MS's deployment of it and secrecy combined with people's already hostile views towards them. It added up to people thinking it's just MS playing Big Brother again - but like you have said Bob, no one bats an eyelid when an AV prog does it. Of course, the other option if you are that miffed with it, is to do as Anonymous did and don't use their product ;-)

Posted by:

21 Dec 2006

This past May I was one of those people who had a false positive. I had Windows XP on my system for over a year and the only change I made to my computer was I resized my windows partition and installed Linux in a dual-boot setup. When I tried to run Windows XP again, I was greeted with a message that I need to call an 800 number to re-activate my copy of XP. Even worse, I could no longer access any of my XP files because WGA wouldn't allow me to use windows XP until I validated it. I didn't appreciate being accused of having a pirated copy of Windows XP and even worse being forced to call a number that was often busy and not a 24-hour number just to be able to access my own files! After 2 days I was able to get through and was given a several digit number to re-activate my Windows XP. As a Computer Science Graduate, I understand the issues regarding software piracy but Microsoft has gone too far with WGA in my opinion.

You should never be locked out of your own files just because the OS has an anti-piracy detector and if it gives out a false positives locks the OS from use. If they are going to force WGA on users then they may consider making the 800 number a 24 hour/7-days-a-week number and have more operators to answer the calls from people locked out of their operating system and their own personal files! The way WGA operates is like a store having security guards detain you if they think you stole something and refusing to let you leave until you prove you didn't steal anything even if they have no evidence that you stole anything-they just think you may have stolen something. Would you go to a store that treated you like that? Unfortunately, you can't just leave Windows. It is the dominant OS that you must use to some extent.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I've never heard of people being locked out by WGA. It only supposed to present a popup warning you to validate your system. Anyone else have this problem?

Posted by:

24 Dec 2006

I'd like to respond to the editors note. I was inaccurate in saying that I was locked out completely. I was still able to log in but from what I remembered, I had some kind of reduced functionality. I would log in and my desktop icons would be gone and some software wouldn't work including MS office. I think the message I received may have been different from the one shown above. The message did say that I had a possible invalid copy of XP but I think it was an activation screen and said that I had 30 days to re-activate my copy of XP with a valid set of keys and gave me the 800 number to call for a valid set of keys. So I cannot say if this was a WGA problem or if somehow my activation information was corrupted. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Posted by:

24 Nov 2007

Whether you post this or not doesn't matter, since I ran across this article by accident, and probably won't be back.

My comment: Genuine Advantage IS, indeed, spyware. It's one thing for the system to "phone home" when it's first installed - quite another for it to check once every two weeks, never mind once a day! What's going to happen, anyway? A valid install will suddenly become a pirated copy overnight? I would never have objected to that initial check, nor would I have objected to it checking when it needed to update something in the system. There is absolutely no good reason for MS to "phone home" in any other circumstance.

My valid copy of XP stopped being updated when MS tried to force GA down my throat. My new lap top is going to have Ubuntu and KDE on it. MS' attitude is responsible, in no small part, for people becoming disgusted and either abandoning Windows completely, or doing things they wouldn't otherwise ever do. The more I talk to people, the more people I find who have had enough of MS.

Posted by:

mac real
21 Feb 2008


EDITOR'S NOTE: Ouchie, that's hard on the eyes. Hit that CapsLock key once in a while, okay?

Posted by:

26 Feb 2008

I agree with one point regarding WGA, and that is Microsoft does have every right to protect its intellectual property.

But here are the problems with WGA.

1. It doesn’t work and doesn’t prevent piracy. This problem alone should be enough to abandon the WGA effort.

2. Unnecessary code. It is unnecessary code and like any other code you must patch support, update etc. Wasted time, resources and money on a piece of software that offers no protection for Microsoft or value to the consumer.

3. I have no problem running WGA and I read and agreed to the EULA. It’s not enough that I have to update it but when I go to download Defender I must download yet another WGA. Then I have to validate for all other requiring WGA there after. As if that is not enough then you get to repeat the loop with Office. Where is exactly is the “advantage” for Microsoft or me? Coincidentally, software pirates are missing out on all of these “advantages”.

I will spare you my rant on Vista. Otherwise, you have a great site with great information.

Posted by:

03 May 2009

Yes, yes, excellent and legitimate idea on Microsoft's part. I first got notice of WGA pitching a tent in my CPU last week. Now, I admit: my Windows XP copy was, well, copied, off of a friend's genuine version. To my knowledge, I am the only one he allowed to rip his version; it's not like he made a habit out of it, and I usually don't either; whether that makes it ethically more acceptable id for anyone to decide. But I am a university student, and thus, I am up to my neck in debt, not money, and that 200$ is simply an amount I did not have at the time.
My problem is this: I am even least likely to cough up 200$ tiday than I was when I set up my computer, and since first showing its ugly head on my monitor screen, WGA has all but slowed my CPU to a crawl. It eats up at my RAM memory like its all-you-can-it buffet in there; I can no longer seem to run two things at the same time without everything crashing into flames (say, Winamp and MSN Messenger, for instance), and it even has affected my brand new DSL hi-speed connexion down to old dial-up speed performances.
So I am pissed at Microsoft, the richest society in the world, that so desperately needs my 200$ that they will poisoned my life and my computer without regards for us poor non-billionaires out there.
So, at long last, my question is this: has anyone had a similar WGA experience, and, is there a way to fix it without me having to take a mortgage on my iPod (which I am too broke to have one btw)?
Thank you all.

Posted by:

23 Jul 2009

MS have well pass the border for criminal activities, when the lock someone out from their own files, and thats what WGA does. I have experience from friends computers. On the Internet, you can find ANTIWPA, and that cut the head of the spyware. Its a war, with secret codes, and other unpleasant thing from M$, fight them back ! There are free Linux, you can tell M$, if they want pay ! I think Windows work well, but have nothing against make the company suffer. Capitalism are violence in one way or the other, its a war. Fight them back!

EDITOR'S NOTE: Capitalism is not violence. But stealing and piracy are two things that tear at the fabric of the civil society. Capitalism is the engine that drives innovation and invention. Without capitalism there would be no Internet. Probably no electricity, cars or other things you take for granted, either.

Posted by:

Mike Woods
17 Oct 2011

Ya well let me tell you all a little something regarding M$.I did notice this article is kind of old but happened to stumble upon it, and I think what I have to say will grab all your attention.This goes way beyond wga phoning home.I hope this gets published cause my experience with M$ is almost unbelievable but have all the proof on flash drives as well as copies at my attorneys office.Yes i have a current lawsuit pending with M$ so im limited on what i can say.It all started when my wife unknowningly purchased a pirated copy of xp in NY after our pc crashed she had her brother install it and within 2 weeks M$ placed a hologram on the desktop saying i was running a none genuine copy i completly cooperated with them telling them where it was purchased since we are not from NY my info was as close as possible naming the street and store but not the exact location.Since we didnt do this we were denied are genuine copy so i immedietaly wiped out the drive and reformatted it and installed a genuine copy that passed the validation but they went way to far they had my whole documents and settings directory copied and hidden in the hidden os folders as well as many registry alterations they were monitoring my every move and uploading what idk thru a bluetooth receiver hidden in a cache in my harddrive.had it tested and yes it is true as well as during a silverlight install yes i use that because you need it for their xbox live site and my son plays xbox live and is always on that site during the install they hide a transmittor in a cookie i read the install log yes they were dumd enough to leave it behind i read it and after numerous errors they said something like trying workaround and it said hello im your new transmittor desquised as a cookie and i can go on and on the evedience i have is overwhelming i have been around pc's and doing my own builds for years they must have thought i was some dummy so it makes me think of how many others they done this to since not all are as pc savey as me i know this all sounds a little extreme but i assure you its true so never underestimate M$ THEY CAN PLAY VERY DIRTY I switched to ubunta for a while which in my oponion builds a better and more stable system than M$ NOT TO MENTION MUCH MORE SECURE I had no problem with it or figuring it out but the family did so now we back with a M$ SYSTEM WHILE THE LAW SUITE CHURNS AWAY MY ATTORNEY SAID THEY VIOLATED AT LEAST 5 OF OUR constitutional rights as well as another handfull that are borderline criminal if not totally criminal oh and 1 more thing i pulled a security audit on them and they had to return all to normal which they did for about a day its my guess they had some type of mirror on hand of the alterations and were able to restore it within minutes they security templete was gone and they totaly ignored the audit as well as the templete yhey took over my whole machine it was like a chess match i would pull a trick and they would counter with a better one im 1 man with a desktop and laptop i was with out a doubt underarmed for their technology but i held my own, at first they were entering thru terminal under the anyone login which they no longer use when i locked that down or annonomous login i mean they tried login in as a batch and a service oh my god i can go on and on but listen to my words these words are all true and fact it gets better but i cant say anymore thanks

Posted by:

17 Feb 2013

I refused an update after reading the license agreement. This agreement gave MS the freedom to do anything to my computer and without notice. They installed an apt without my permission. The apt blocked my dvd drives and make Office malfunction. I downloaded a rip burner program. It would not work. Tried another program. It would not work. MS controls my computer. My copy of all MS software is legal. It was installed by Gateway when I purchased the computer.There should be no problem with validation of legality.However, I have to install the spyware before I can have the validation. I am looking at Linux and maybe trashing MS forever. However, I paid big bucks for this system and I am angry that I can not use what I own.

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