Microsoft’s Disingenuous Advantage

Windows genuine disadvantage (The Register)

Over the weekend I spent several happy hours helping a friend build a new computer. For once, everything worked first time; this is, in itself, cause for celebration.

The most time-consuming part of the entire operation was the series of install-and-reboot cycles that are necessary to install a plethora of Windows XP security updates.

In the past, Microsoft have repeatedly and voiciferously exhorted us to set “Automatic Updates” to download and install updates automatically, for the very sensible reason that most non-technical users do not keep their pachines patched.

However, I prefer to stay in control of what gets installed on my machine, so I have always stopped short of giving Microsoft that level of discretion. As with every machine that I touch, I configured Automatic Updates on this machine to download and notify. I could not tell you why, just a vague paranoia that MS or someone else would one day use the Automatic Updates for some nefarious means.

That day has finally arrived. There in the list of “Critical Security Updates”, was Windows Genuine Advantage.

WGA is Microsoft’s way of making sure that your copy of XP is “legit” (this was), and remains “legit” in the future. WGA has been around for nearly two years (since September 2004), but until recently it was strictly optional.

No longer. Once the Automatic updates were installed (with the exception of WGA, which I had specifically de-selected), I decided to check out the Windows Update website and see if there was anything that we had missed. The first thing that I was told when I got there was that we needed to install a new version of Windows Update. This has happened before, so…

Install >click<

Installing Windows Genuine Advantage.

Noooooooo! >Cancel< >Cancel< >Cancel< >Cancel<

Thankfully I was able to stop the installation in time, but I was incensed that Microsoft was resorting to this kind of trickery in order to install a piece of software that I had specifically prohibited.

Since when is WGA “a new version of Windows update?

I have a big problem WGA being installed as a Critical Security Update; three, in fact.

  1. It is not critical to the running of Windows.
  2. It is nothing to do with security.
  3. It is not an update to the OS; it is an extra feature.

So there you have it; three lies for the price of one.

The idea of WGA is not a bad one, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired. By all means, allow users to check if their license is legit, and by all means provide them with incentives to do so. But foisting a mandatory and continuous check – however well-meaning – on your users after the fact is just plain wrong. No matter what the EULA says, we did not sign up for this!.

As Steve Gibson would say, “It’s my computer!

As we have already seen, Microsoft will resort to trickery and deception to install a piece of software that provides absolutely no benefit to the user and cannot be removed (at least not not easily) once installed.

There has been some talk of WGA actually being spyware, and there are lawsuits pending. The lawsuits will probably fail; Microsoft’s defence is that since they have permission to install WGA then it cannot, by definition, be spyware.

Technically this is true, but Microsoft is again being disingenuous. The permission that they speak of is in the End User License Agreement (EULA) that you have to agree to in order to install Windows in the first place. This EULA basically gives MS the keys to your machine; they can do what they want, when they want, and they are not responsible or liable for damages. It would be interesting to see if the EULA – which most people don’t read and could not understand if they did – would stand up to serious scrutiny in a courtroom. I suspect that it would not, but in the meantime…

Don’t like the EULA? Don’t install Windows.

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  • Wizard Prang  On August 9, 2006 at 1:17 PM

    Correction: Turned out that what WU was trying to install was not, in fact, WGA, but was a WGA Notifier. This, in turn, would “notify” (i.e., nag) the user that WGA needed to be installed.

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