Microsoft, China clash over Windows 8, backdoor-spying charges

Chinese state-run TV calls Windows 8 a security threat, but Microsoft denies allegations that it uses its OS to collect data from users.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
3 min read

Screenshot by CNET

Microsoft and China are at odds over the issue of cyberspying, with Windows 8 caught in the crossfire.

State-run broadcaster China Central Television lashed out Wednesday at the latest version of Windows and charged that it's capable of collecting a huge amount of data on Chinese society. In a transcript of the CCTV interview published by the Wall Street Journal, an academic shared his opinion on the type of data that Microsoft can allegedly collect through its OS.

"It's very easy for providers of operating systems to obtain various types of sensitive user information," Ni Guangnan, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told the interviewer. "They can find out your identity, your account information, your contact list, your mobile phone number. With all that data together, using big data analysis, a party can understand the conditions and activities of our national economy and society."

Adding fuel to the fire, Guangnan pointed to the classified documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden as proof that Microsoft has worked with the US government to obtain encrypted data over the Internet.

In response, Microsoft used its own Weibo account to refute the charges and deny all allegations of backdoor spying in collaboration with the US government. As translated in a story by Neowin, Microsoft's denials break down into five points. According to Neowin, Microsoft said it has:

  • Never "assisted any government in an attack of another government or clients."
  • Never "provided any government the authority to directly visit...products or services."
  • Never provided a "backdoor" to products or services.
  • Never provided client data or information to the US government or the NSA.
  • Never "concealed any requests from any government for information about its clients."

Microsoft's war of words with China is part of a larger skirmish between the US and Chinese governments. Charges of cyberspying between the two countries is nothing new. But since the revelations of NSA spying activities were leaked last year, China has used the opportunity to accuse such companies as Microsoft, Google, and Apple of cooperating with the NSA to gather data and steal state secrets. Tech companies have acknowledged that they are required to share certain customer data at the request of the government but have denied that they collaborate with the government or build backdoors into their products and services to allow data to be siphoned.

Such charges can damage a company's reputation and bottom line. In the case of Microsoft, China last month announced a ban on Windows 8 for government computers. At the time, China's state-run Xinhua news agency said simply that the ban was designed to improve security. However, China likely has another motive for wanting to put the kibosh on Windows 8 beyond security fears.

Microsoft has long accused China of widespread piracy of Windows. In 2011, former CEO Steve Ballmer told employees that Microsoft's revenue in China represented only 5 percent of sales in the US although the two markets were about the same size, according to the Journal. As such, a significant number of the PCs in China still running the now-unsupported Windows XP may be using illegal copies.

Microsoft wants to implement a server-based licensing system in China as one way to fight software piracy, the Journal added. And since the software giant no longer sells or supports Windows XP, Chinese consumers would be forced to upgrade to a more modern operating system, such as Windows 8.