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Fighting Microsoft's piracy check

The software pushes ahead with a piracy check tool for Windows as some users complain about system troubles and unwanted data collection.

Joris Evers Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Joris Evers covers security.
Joris Evers
5 min read
Counterfeiters aren't Microsoft's only opponents in its effort to combat piracy: Some of its customers are against it, too.

The company is forging ahead with a program, Windows Genuine Advantage, tied to its free software downloads and updates, that checks whether the Windows installation on a PC is pirated. But some people, including some who say they own a legitimately acquired copy of Windows, have challenged the need for such validation.

Most of their criticism is directed at the way Microsoft's antipiracy technology, Windows Genuine Advantage, interacts with a PC. Recently, the software maker was lambasted over its WGA Notifications tool, which it pushes out as a "high priority" update alongside security fixes. There have also been complaints about the tool collecting information from PCs and causing system troubles.

"The issue is not that they are trying to reduce the number of pirated copies. It's the unethical way in which they go about it," a CNET News.com reader using the name "jabbotts" wrote in response to a recent story on Microsoft's antipiracy efforts.

But there is more going on than just talk. Some Windows users have started to search for ways around the antipiracy technology, setting up a struggle between Microsoft and WGA opponents. Since the 2004 introduction of the WGA program, multiple hacks and tricks to circumvent the piracy check or to remove the software have been published on the Internet. And the hunt for effective workarounds appears to be continuing.

Windows Genuine Advantage is a stepped-up effort by Microsoft to boost the number of Windows users who actually pay for the operating system. The company has said that roughly a third of Windows copies worldwide have not been acquired legitimately--as a boxed product or bundled onto a machine, for example.

Microsoft has gradually expanded its pirate-busting efforts. Today, Windows users must have their PC electronically approved before they can download add-on Microsoft software such as Windows Media Player and Windows Defender. WGA excludes security updates from this requirement. When the antipiracy program started, validation was optional for downloads.

As the program has grown, so have efforts to circumvent it. One Web site, for example, lists 15 methods--including step-by-step directions and links to file downloads--to disable Microsoft's copyright-check tools and WGA Notifications warning messages.

One of the listed methods is to install the "905474.exe" program. This "crack" was also suggested by CNET News.com readers providing story feedback. The file, named after the number for the support article for WGA on Microsoft's Web site, is widely available on the Internet. (Caution: CNET News.com hasn't tested this application, and it isn't wise to install files from sources that aren't known and trusted.)

"I have licenses for all my PCs," wrote CNET News.com reader "kamwmail-cnet1." But citing a lack of trust in Microsoft, this reader installed the 905474.exe tool. "Install this hack. Boot your PC. You're in business, private business," the reader added.

Other proposals to defeat the piracy checks vary from the simple--such as blocking the Microsoft applications using firewall software--to the more complex, such as replacing files that are part of the checking tools with cracked versions of those files. Some methods require changes to the Windows Registry, which calls for more advanced technical knowledge on the part of the PC owner.

The hacks and workarounds are a sign of the indignation among some Microsoft users, including some CNET News.com readers.

"A few days after the first WGA notification program was released, a workaround was found, so Microsoft reworked the program so the workaround doesn't work, then pushes the software onto people's systems under the guise that it's a critical update," wrote a reader using the nickname "thedreaming."

"It's not a critical update to users, just (to) Microsoft," the reader added.

Some readers say the workarounds are functional, but it isn't clear if they all are. A cautionary note on the Web page that listed 15 ways to bypass WGA also warned that, with the new releases of WGA, some cracks no longer work. It is even possible that some of the hacks will work for one user, but not for another, according to the Web site. CNET News.com did not test any of the workarounds.

Stepped-up effort
Microsoft advanced its antipiracy program in November last year, when it started pushing out a tool called WGA Notifications alongside its security updates. The tool has been sent millions of Windows users in a number of countries. In April, the U.S. joined the list of covered territories, as did the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand.

The first time a computer owner runs WGA to check if their version of Windows is genuine, the software sends data on the system back to Microsoft. This information covers the Windows XP product key, the maker of the PC, the operating system version, PC bios information and the user's local setting and language. Microsoft discloses that this information is transferred in its WGA tool license.

In past weeks, reports have emerged that the WGA Notifications software connects to a Microsoft server each time the PC is started--something Microsoft didn't previously disclose. Also, as it has become clear that the tool isn't a finished product, millions of Windows users may unwittingly be subjects in a trial run for a Microsoft antipiracy program.

This has irked some people, even those who have acknowledged Microsoft's right to fight piracy and who have supported the WGA program in the past. Users shouldn't be pushed into being guinea pigs, many readers argued.

"I spent several hours trying to fix an office machine which slowed to a crawl or froze after this update was installed," wrote CNET News.com reader "umbramistweave," in response to a story about the prerelease status of WGA Notifications. "It's beta. It's flawed. It should not have been released as an update."

Other readers also reported PC trouble after installing the WGA software.

"Windows Update should only be used for delivering completed, non-beta software, period," wrote CNET News.com reader "john55440."

In response to the criticism, Microsoft maintains that there is a real benefit in validating a copy of Windows.

"Our experience is that customers--as long as the process is understandable, unobtrusive, quick and painless--appreciate not only their copy of Windows more, but also appreciate Microsoft more," David Lazar, director of the Windows Genuine program at Microsoft, told CNET News.com last week.

That comment brought out some zealots. One reader, using the nickname "imacpwr" wrote: "Mac just keeps looking better and better and better...That's it Microsoft, just keep shooting yourself in the foot. Before you know it you'll be on your knees begging the public to come back."