Microsoft to include anti-piracy kill switch in Windows (after originally saying it wouldn't do so)

Summary:This will undoubtedly descend into a war of semantics when it comes to what technically constitutes a kill switch. But, developers have tried "kill switches" in their code for as long as I can remember (often referring to them as such) and it's commonly understood what that means in the context of disabling software.

This will undoubtedly descend into a war of semantics when it comes to what technically constitutes a kill switch. But, developers have tried "kill switches" in their code for as long as I can remember (often referring to them as such) and it's commonly understood what that means in the context of disabling software. Now, several months after going on record as saying that it wouldn't include a kill switch in Windows, Microsoft has announced that Vista will automatically log you off if your copy of the operating system is thought to have been pirated. In a document that the software giant has posted on its Web site, the company wants the press to see it not as something that shuts the computer in question down, but rather as "reduced functionality."

Last June, in response to fellow ZDNet blogger Ed Bott's assertion that Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) technology would include a kill switch that could shut down the operating system if it didn't pass Microsoft's anti-piracy smell test, Microsoft was very clear in saying that such a switch did not exist. Wrote Ed Bott in his original post:

Guess what? WGA might be on the verge of getting even messier. In fact, one report claims WGA is about to become a Windows “kill switch” – and when I asked Microsoft for an on-the-record response, they refused to deny it.

But then, Microsoft actually denied it. Officially. From one of Bott's follow-up posts:

Yesterday, at the end of the workday, I received this e-mail from a representative of Microsoft’s PR agency, Waggener Edstrom [that said] "No, Microsoft anti-piracy technologies cannot and will not turn off your computer.  In our ongoing fight against piracy, we are constantly finding and closing loopholes pirates use to circumvent established policies. The game is changing for counterfeiters. In Windows Vista we are making it notably harder and less appealing to use counterfeit software, and we will work to make that a consistent experience with older versions of Windows as well."

Then comes this morning's report from News.com's Joris Evers (headline: Microsoft to lock pirates out of Vista PCs):

Windows Vista will have new antipiracy technology that locks people out their PCs if the operating system isn't activated within 30 days after installation....If Vista is not activated with a legitimate product registration key in time, the system will run in "reduced functionality mode" until it is activated, said Thomas Lindeman, a senior product manager at Microsoft. In this mode, people will be able to use a Web browser for up to an hour, after which time the system will log them out, he said....The new technology is part of Microsoft's new "Software Protection Platform," which the company plans to announce on Wednesday.

Microsoft has apparently prepared a FAQ that eschews the language "kill switch" for "reduced functionality," claiming that "Microsoft anti-piracy technologies cannot and will not turn off your computer." But is it a kill switch? OK, so maybe it doesn't physically turn the power to your computer off like a similar switch might cut of the electrical system in a car. But, if after an hour of being able to use nothing but the Internet, if the computer logs you out, it's as good as off if you ask me. 

Meanwhile, Bott has been on the WGA warpath highlighting how the supposed anti-piracy technology is falsely tagging genuine copies of Windows as being non-genuine (aka "pirated"). From another one of  Bott's posts last week comes this unconfirmed tale of woe (it seems pretty legit):

I have run the WGA download; I have validated the software; MGA still says genuine; enabled active-x and run the wgatray /b.

This machine is supposed to be running in the [operating room], and the last thing the docs need when they go to pull up the xrays/ct scans is to be told they are illegal (and to spend time clicking around to get rid of the fool message).

The wga message started after I reformatted my Dell and re-loaded windows. Then I installed the MS updates (which were fine) and then installed a new nvidia card. Since then it’s been wga heartbreak!

Any more suggestions?? HELP!!

Bott includes a screen shot of the Windows dialog that doctor's in the operating room are likely to bump into should the problem go unresolved:

 

Resolve later? As in, let's close the patient up now, fix the computer, and then, if the patient hasn't died, bring him back in to restart the surgery? I spoke to Bott his morning, and apparently, more and more reports regarding WGA's fallibility are coming to his attention (stay tuned to his blog for a blockbuster of a post on more WGA failures).  In other words, the net net is that Microsoft appears ready to implement the equivalent of a kill switch that's based on what could be fallible validation technology.

Meanwhile, regarding Microsoft's about face on including a kill switch in Windows, Bott had this to say this morning:

Microsoft denies that this is a "kill switch" for Windows Vista, even giving it a separate question and answer in its mock interview announcing the program [Bott is referring to the aforementioned FAQ]. Technically, they're right, I suppose. Switching a PC into a degraded functionality where all you can do is browse the Internet doesn't kill it; but it's arguably a near-death experience.

Topics: Windows

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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