If you’ve noticed some unexplained traffic on your network every day, it could be Windows Genuine Advantage. As Matt on M-Dollar pointed out last night, Microsoft admitted that the antipiracy tool "phones home" on a daily basis. The software giant characterized the application’s behavior as a safety measure designed to ensure that the program doesn’t malfunction as it’s still a "pilot program."
Windows Genuine Advantage has become Microsoft’s preeminent antipiracy tool. After rolling it out last year, the company began making its installation mandatory in order to download updates to Windows. It works by checking to ensure that users are running a legitimate, licensed copy of Windows XP. If the tool determines that a user is running a pirated copy of Windows, it will nag the user and refuse to download some updates (not critical security fixes, however).
At issue is whether the company should disclose that information as part of the EULA. Other companies have gotten their share of flack for similar application "features." One recent example is the iTunes MiniStore introduced with iTunes 6.0.2. That version of iTunes introduced a small pane to the popular music-playing application that offers up suggestions from the iTunes Music Store based on what you’re listening to. When it was released, Apple failed to communicate that the application transmits information to the company on a regular basis (which Apple says it does not keep). Apple now notifies the user of iTunes’ behavior.
Windows Genuine Advantage’s behavior seems a bit more innocuous than iTunes. Although Microsoft has not disclosed what information the application is transmitting, chances are high that it consists of a user’s IP address, Windows serial number, and product key. There’s nothing terribly alarming in that list. It could also be checking in to see if it should disable itself. The only major cause for concern that I can see is the tool’s "malfunctioning" and incorrectly informing users that they do not have a legitimate copy of Winodws.
Microsoft says it will reduce the frequency with which WGA checks in with the company to once every couple of weeks or so, and admits that it erred by not telling users everything that the tool does. "We’re looking at ways to communicate that in a more forward manner," said Windows Genuine Advantage program head David Lazar.
That’s the biggest problem with Windows Genuine Advantage: not that it phones home to Microsoft regularly—although I can’t think of a good reason for it to do so on a daily basis—but that it does so without notifying the user. It’s always in a company’s long-term interest to fully disclose an application’s functionality, especially one like WGA which Microsoft has made mandatory for its users.