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Microsoft plans antipiracy update for Windows 7

An optional update closes more than 70 "activation hacks" used to thwart the product's software protection mechanisms.

An optional update to Windows closes a number of hacks that counterfeiters have used to bypass the product activation technologies built into Windows 7. With the update, Windows will try to restore Windows to its proper state, as well as marking tampered versions as non-genuine copies of the operating system. Microsoft

Microsoft said on Thursday that it is planning an update to Windows 7 that will close a number of loopholes that counterfeiters had used to thwart the operating system's built-in antipiracy measures.

The Windows Activation Technologies Update for Windows 7, which will be released later this month, closes more than 70 "activation hacks," according to Joe Williams, general manager of Microsoft's Genuine Windows unit, responsible for anti-counterfeiting measures. The update will also check with a server periodically to see if there are further hacks that need to be addressed, though Williams said no personally identifiable information about the user will be sent to the server.

In an interview, Williams cautioned about the dangers that come with using nongenuine versions of the operating system, citing a German study that looked at several hundred copies of Windows 7 that were posted online and found that nearly a third had some type of malware.

"We do see malicious code--everything from easily discoverable malware to keyboard recording," he said. "There's all sorts of things we've seen that puts our customers at risk and their data at risk."

The update will be available for manual download from Microsoft's genuine Web site on Feb. 16 and from the Microsoft Download center the following day. Later this month, the update will also be offered through Windows Update as an "important" (but optional) update.

Williams said the new update will remain optional and that those who choose not to install it will still be able to get other Windows updates, a position that marks a fairly sharp contrast to the once hard line Microsoft was taking against piracy.

With the first release of Windows Vista, Microsoft took an aggressive stance, shifting users it determined to have nongenuine versions of the operating system into a severely limited "reduced functionality" mode. In that mode, all users could do was access the Internet for an hour a day.

However, Williams said that Microsoft heard from customers, businesses, and governments that the restrictions were to draconian and decided to try a different approach.

In the first update to Vista, Microsoft relaxed things considerably, choosing instead to just prominently notify users that their version was not genuine.

Starting with Vista Service Pack 1, users saw their background changed to black and a message that their version was nongenuine, as well as getting a dialog box encouraging them to activate a genuine copy. One could choose to do so immediately, or, after 15 seconds, could click an option to activate later.

With Windows 7, Microsoft eased things even more, allowing users to immediately choose to deal with the issue later, although those that choose that option are notified of some of the benefits of genuine software.

Williams declined to say whether Microsoft will close any of the activation hacks with the first service pack to Windows 7, noting that the company has not yet confirmed any plans for that update. Microsoft did close a number of activation holes in Vista with the service pack to that product.

Williams said Microsoft has put much of its focused on informing customers that may have been duped into buying a PC with non-genuine software.

"We are pretty realistic," Williams said. "People who are actively pirating will try to find ways to continue to pirate."