Windows 7 activation update aims at high-volume pirates

Windows 7 activation update aims at high-volume pirates

Summary: Today, Microsoft announced the imminent release of a new Windows Activation Technologies Update for Windows 7. It's the latest evolutionary step in the technologies that started with Windows Genuine Advantage in 2006. What's noteworthy to me is the degree to which Microsoft is going out of its way to disclose the details of this update and to allow anyone who is skeptical of it to opt out with no negative consequences. I've got full details.


Today, Microsoft announced the imminent release of a new Windows Activation Technologies Update for Windows. This update, which targets Windows 7, is the latest evolutionary step in the technologies that started with Windows Genuine Advantage in 2006. For most Windows users in the developed world its impact will be nonexistent; on a system with a properly activated copy of Windows, it will make an initial validation check, update itself every 90 days, and never make a peep. What's noteworthy to me is the degree to which Microsoft is going out of its way to disclose the details of this update and to allow anyone who is skeptical of it to opt out with no negative consequences.

The biggest change in this update is the addition of new code designed to detect common hacks that allow pirated software to circumvent Windows activation. According to Joe Williams, General Manager of Microsoft's Genuine Windows division, the update "will detect more than 70 known and potentially dangerous activation exploits." More details:

The Update is designed to run on all editions of Windows 7, although we will distribute first to the Home Premium, Professional, Ultimate and Enterprise editions. It will be available online at beginning February 16 and on the Microsoft Download Center beginning February 17. Later this month, the update will also be offered through Windows Update as an ‘Important’ update.

Back in 2006, Microsoft took a lot of well-deserved fire for its decision to force the initial WGA update on Windows XP users. Since that time, they've done a complete 180 in terms of privacy. This update is voluntary; you can choose not to install it, and you can permanently hide it so it's never offered to you again. You can also remove the update at any time. And in his blog post, Williams stresses that Information transmitted to Microsoft servers "does not include any personally identifiable information or any other information that Microsoft can use to identify or contact you." [bold text in original]

Every time I write about activation technologies, the Talkback responses includes a handful of predictable themes, so I might as well deal with them here. No, this sort of update is not aimed at hackers trying to score a free copy of Windows for themselves. A certain amount of that piracy will always go on, and Microsoft harbors no illusions that any anti-piracy scheme can be 100% effective. The real goal is to shut down pirates who use these "known activation exploits" to sell PCs or shrink-wrapped software packages to consumers who think they're buying the real thing.

The new update uses signatures similar to those included with antivirus programs to identify exploits and automatically updates itself every 90 days. When it detects that the core licensing files used in Windows have been tampered with or disabled, the update tries to repair those files (or, to put it another way, it disabled the activation hack). It also notifies the user with a dialog box like this one:

When an activation hack is disabled, the now-unactivated copy of Windows provides some persistent notifications to the user. The desktop wallpaper disappears temporarily, replaced by a plain black desktop and a small watermark that identifies the copy of Windows as "non-genuine." As has been the case for several years, there's no reduced functionality in Windows itself. Programs continue to work and data files are unaffected.

I was a fierce critic of the initial WGA efforts, primarily because the user experience was so awful and the tools it used were inaccurate. Back in 2008, I gave Microsoft a C+ for its efforts, a significant improvement over the "big fat F" it earned in 2006 and 2007.

Over the past year, I have been visiting the Windows Genuine forums at least once per quarter to survey performance and have found that activation issues have become a non-issue. In every example I have found, the problem could be traced to malware or a major hardware change, or (surprisingly often) to a customer who had unknowingly purchased counterfeit software. Where false positive reports were once a serious problem, they're now practically nonexistent in my experience.

Antipiracy technology of any kind is never going to be popular, but it's a necessary evil. When this update goes live, I'll keep a close eye out to see how well it's working and will follow-up here at the first hint of any problems.

Topics: Microsoft, Enterprise Software, Operating Systems, Piracy, Security, Software, Windows

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  • Windows 7 Activation

    not only aims at high-volume pirates, but also to squeeze every penny they can from a product that has virtually no room to grow market share.
    • Why does Win7 have no room to grow market share?

      Win7 has already garnered some 10%+ of the PC OS market, but there's a LONG way to go to replace Win2000, XP and Vista.
      • re: Why does Win7 have no room to grow market share?

        Because when/if Microsoft pull this stunt, their market share will decrease. Hence "aims at high-volume pirates"

      • M$ DRM Propaganda & Manure!

        Do you actually believe that DRM propaganda? I
        for one still use XP, although Linux is my
        primary OS of choice. Since any Windows install
        is becoming ever more frustrating to use by
        comparison. Precisely because of Microsoft's
        continued efforts to spy on and control
        computer users w/ their continued crapware
        addons and unneeded processes stealing
        processing power from our ever increasingly
        powerful hardware. They clog up their OS's with
        so much crapola, it's pathetic. That only
        honest users from using the products they pay
        for and pirates left free to do their thing.

        You M$ clowns call it a necessary evil in using
        DRM in it's defense. But the true definition of
        that acronym is "Digital Rectal Manipulation"!

        When it's all said and done, the pirates still
        win. The customers that get duped into buying a
        machine w/o genuine Windows installed, are the
        one that gets punished. Leaving the Pirates out
        there to burn somebody else. DRM is therefore
        an exercise in futility for both customers and
        Microsoft. But going after customers will never
        solve anything and just lead to more defections
        to Apple's OSX and Linux!
        • Activation != DRM

          They're completely orthogonal things.

          Activation is a mechanism by which you prove that you're installing a genuine copy of Windows and not some counterfeit copy that you've just been fleeced on.

          DRM is technology that allows the owner of some digital content to determine who is allowed to do what with that content.

          For example:

          1) MS Office uses DRM to control who can read/reply/save/print/forward spreadsheets, documents and emails. This is a critically important feature for the vast majority of businesses around the world who do NOT want their documents being read by someone who manages to steal an employee's laptop.

          2) DRM allows music, video and movie creators and/or publishers to prevent trivial copying of their content. It's their content which they're offering you the opportunity to enjoy within certain limiations (e.g. you can't copy it and hand it out to all your friends). Don't like those terms? Don't view/listen to the content.

          Alas, there are too many people around who believe, for whatever reason, that they're in some way entitled-to or own some set of content. You don't - you're permitted to use that content within the copyright owners limitations. Get over it.
          • Hackers do not care it does nothing to them

            The easiest way is to just buy things that you can own and skip the rentals or as some put it user fees. If you do not like DRM don't buy it buy products that are DRM free or items that you can use as you see fit as there is nothing that makes you purchase these items. Now as for operating systems or other software there is always the open source market that lets you forget about DRM and it works just as well as what you pay lots of money for and you can forget DRM checks and shutdowns if the DRM fails.
            Believe No One
          • Operating Systems don't have DRM

            Unless you're referring to the ability to playback DRMed Audio and video files (e.g. DVD/BD or WMA/WMV with DRM).

            I can move my OS to ANY hardware I want to (so long as it's capable of running Windows 7). What i can't do is run (legally) on multiple machines or without a license.

            People who complain about MS, ought to look at how some of the enterprise S/W works. Those licenses are far more expensive and restrictive. And I've seen software cease working the day the license expires.

            Windows, even after this update, will continue to work even if it fails WGA.
          • Re; Activation != DRM

            While I agree that they're not the same,
            DRM on music is a problem for 2 reasons:

            1. Not all files can play on all players. WMA doesn't play on an iPod and DRM AAC files don't play on anything but iPods.

            2. Transcoding a lossy file further degrades the sound.

            Ideally, purchasing a song would give you a license to all lossy formats that are currently available.

            I'd argue that purchasing a CD should give you those rights as well.

            If an SACD/DVD-Audio is purchased, then you should have the rights to grab all of the lesser versions as well (including a FLAC, Apple lossless or WMA Lossless version of the CD).

            In the end, DRM on Music fails, because CD's have no meaningful DRM. The only reason it succeeds on Blu-Ray is because the movies are large (and frankly, for the current owners, the prices of movies are frequently dirt cheap...see amazon's weekly specials).

            Personally, I refuse to buy lossy files. I buy a CD turn them into flac and then transcode to whatever my player uses (currently vorbis). But if labels sold me FLAC files, with lyrics, HD quality artwork (for a media server) and so on, Imight buy those instead of a CD.
          • Where to even start ...

            ... sigh:

            1) That's a format compatibility issue, not DRM per se.

            2) What has lossy transcoding got to do with the price of butter?

            What you argue *should* (in your view) happen when you buy a CD is irrelevant. Your rights are clearly spelled out. Don't like them, don't buy CD's.

            CD's did have what was thought at the time as being reasonably effective DRM. However, that DRM was cracked and no better alternative has worked.

            That's a technical issue. Legally, your rights remain as above.

            If you buy digital music you're buying lossy files. Music is analog; digital music is not. Data is lost in the process of conversion from analog to digital. CD's are only sampled at 44.1kHz - already lower quality than theoretically reproducable by a perfect turntable playing perfectly carved vinyl.

            Blu-Ray Audio samples the source music at 192kHz providing far greater fidelity, but it's still lossy (although few people can tell).
          • Rights to copy/rip CDs

            Everytime I buy a blank optical media, I get charged a fee which is intended to compensate the music companys and musicians. The Private Copying exemption of the Copyright Act also makes it clear that I have the right to do what I want with the contents of the CD as long as it is for my own personal use. Rip it to my favourite compressed format to use on a music player? No problemo. Make a copy to play in a car CD player. No problemo. Rip 6 CDs to MP3 format and play them in the car. Again no problem.

            Of course, we have the usual legal oddities where downloading a music file for my private use is legal. Uploading the file or making it available for download is currently in legal limbo. Since the last three attempts to introduce an amended copyright act have died on the order paper, it's anyone's guess at to when we will have a modified act in place.

            As for DRM on music CDs, that was never all that common. And seldom worked when it was tried. Perhaps you are thinking of copy protection? Sony's infamous rootkit was one of the few tried on music CDs. Copy protection is quite common on game CDs and some applications where you need to have the original copy protected CD in the drive to run the program.

            As for the difference between analog and digital music, I'm old enough to remember when I purchased all my music on vinyl -- at $1.98 for a LP at that. Perhaps you don't remember the ticks and pops? The joy of a scratch? Or the way that a vinyl record would wear out after too many plays. In theory, good vinyl was better than CD -- after all, CD-4 managed to get up to 45KHz response on a vinyl record. The only real advantage I found with my CD-4 setup was that a Shibata stylus played back my older records with a major audible improvement in handling scratched and worn records. Digital may not have the capability to make the golden ear crowd happy but for the most part, it's good enough.

            I'd also argue that strictly speaking, CD audio is not lossy. There are some unavoidable losses in any conversion but CD audio, within it's bandwidth limitations, does not discard a portion of the original signal to reduce the amount of data such as in done in MP3, Ogg, etc. There is very little audio content found at or above 20Khz and very few people could hear that content if it was reproduced. With a 44.1KHz sampling frequency, the Nyquist frequency would be 22,050Hz. Limiting the bandwidth to 20Khz would pretty much eliminate any artifacting so a CD played back with a well designed and implemented DAC could hardly be considered lossy. Blu-ray audio at 192KHz sampling rate would have a Nyquist frequency of 96KHz -- I'm pretty certain even a bat doesn't hear those frequencies.

            When it comes to the golden ear crowd, I still remember a story where a group got to listen to music with multiple amplifiers used (same source, same speakers, just switch the amplifiers). I seem to remember two very high end solid state amplifiers (one priced at $12,000), two tube amplifiers (McIntosh for one) and a Carver "magnetic field" amplifier were used. The golden ear crowd heard the differences between the amplifiers as the switch was placed in different positions -- the tube amplifiers had the "tube" sound, etc. Oddly, it turned out the switch was a dummy and the only amplifier that was used was the Carver unit. I've never been sure if this story was a hoax or not but given the claims in some of the magazines, it could easily be true.

            Admittedly, we're talking about a group that later could hear the differences in the sound of a CD after a green marker pen was run around the edge to absorb stray reflections from the infrared laser light source.
        • Hey funboy - did you bother reading the article?

          Seriously... In the article, Ed said, "The new update uses signatures similar to those included with antivirus programs to identify exploits and automatically updates itself every 90 days."

          Therefore, it checks for these hacked activations once every 90 days.

          He also wrote, "Back in 2006, Microsoft took a lot of well-deserved fire for its decision to force the initial WGA update on Windows XP users. Since that time, they?ve done a complete 180 in terms of privacy. [u]This update is voluntary; you can choose not to install it, and you can permanently hide it so it?s never offered to you again.[/u] You can also [u]remove the update at any time[/u]."

          Ok... So you don't want it, don't install it. Your precious clock ticks are now no longer in danger of being hijacked.
          • What about Now in 2010?

            Im not here to deal with fanboy flame wars. All fanboys can zip it. Both sides. What I am here for, is to say the other day I did get that very notice.
            What are the chances of me having a counterfeit version? Nil. Unless it's at the factory level. How can I be so sure? My desktop was purchased at Costco and came with Vista and the Windows 7 Upgrade offer. My laptop was bought from tigerdirect and had the same offer. So, why on earth did I get the notice?
            And yes, funboy is right. If this pops up again or causes any negative reaction, next upgrade WILL be a mac, because I'm tired of things. Thats not to say Mac wont do the same thing; i dont know. we'll see when it comes time. But, I for one am getting frustrated with MS' insistence on checking to see if my software is counterfeit. Sorry; once is sufficient, as far as im concerned. If they werent able to tell it was counterfeit, too friggin bad. No other industry gets to continuously snoop to make sure you dont have a counterfeit. What, will clothing manufacturers be allowed to install chips that take photo's of the clothes you wear every 90 days to make sure they havent "suddenly become counterfeit"? Then why should the digital media industry?
          • RE: What about Now in 2010?

            Actually there are plenty of non-legit copies that don't get detected as legit. Alot of people buy computers at small time computer shops with Windows pre-installed to only find that they have been scammed. There is always going to be that occasional false flagging of a pirated copy but I know that on XP antiwpa.dll (a common activation blocker) is now flagged as malware on MalwareBytes and removed on the spot. The result is a copy that must be activated.

            P.S. - Those that use activators to bypass the Windows activation request usually do it on the bootloader level. They don't modify the check files but rather emulate OEM SLP validation methods.
          • Well, it's still crazy to me

            i understand that some receive counterfeited discs or copies on their machines, particularly if they are purchasing from questionable sources.
            Even if that did happen to me, I received legit win 7 discs, via the upgrade kit promo. So, I dont understand why that would have happened. Except as a false positive. Which is why I am against the whole process.
            And, btw, I do understand and agree that companies have the right to protect their investments. But, ONCE. Not on a forever basis.
          • Once not forever....

            Ok, so what you're saying is that if I create a
            new method of bypassing the activation on April
            1, and you use it on April 2, (and download
            their current round of signatures), then you
            should be allowed to keep using it even though
            on May 30, Microsoft releases a signature for

            I don't agree with them checking "every 90
            days". I would say maybe at 3 months and then
            6 months. If they haven't blocked it by 6
            months, they never will. But the idea of check
            once then stop isn't going to work either.
            Because it means that anyone who bought the
            counterfeit version between the time the
            activation bypass was put out and Microsoft
            released it in their updates, is allowed to
            keep using it.

            Basically it means that people who bought it
            before the update are given preferential
            treatment over those who bought it after.
            Because their copy wasn't discovered, so
            they're less guilty (or less a victim) than the
            ones who bought it after it was discovered.

            Nope. Sorry. I don't buy that. Like I said, 3
            months then 6 months after the update is
            installed. No more, no less.

            Have a great day:)
          • @pdickey043

            What amazes me, is how somebody can defend what Microsoft is doing.
            The pirate marketshare of Windows is very, very, tiny compaired to all the
            legit versions out there and yet the legit people are the ones being
            treated like criminals. What ever happen to the majority rules, not in this
        • I partially agree, but...

          I agree that Linux has improved - a lot. I run
          one Linux box, primarily for surfing, and the
          interface is very professional now.

          But I make my living off MS and I have to use
          their products. SQL Srvr 2008 sux - everyone I
          know agrees. It is a giant step backwards. But
          when we tried to move to MySQL we learned MS
          had some "convenient" hooks built into VS 2008
          which would mean a lot of extra code to work
          around. So we are stuck in the MS world. I'm
          not happy, but it's the way it is.

          And Win7 still looks and smells like Vista, it
          nags me constantly about everything. Seems the
          MS opinion is "We will disable everything, and
          when you enable it and get hacked or attacked
          it is your fault". It is unusable unless you
          disable the UAC, and vunerable when you do. But
          more and more I find the new technologies
          aren't working on my XP and I am being forced
          to upgrade. The new laptop came with Win7, and
          things are working on it - I just have to use
          it in what I consider a crappy OS.

          I have come to accept it, because I am not
          willing to throw years of programming knowledge
          away and pursue learning a new language with
          all the quirks and tricks one must learn to
          make things happen.

          I feel sorry for those who buy computers with
          pirated software, but MS is in the business to
          make money and they obviously do it well.
          Computer manufacturers are the ones dropping
          the ball - they could offer discounted
          computers running Linux and push that OS more,
          but they won't do it. It is the non-acceptance
          of an alternate OS that keeps MS as king of the
          mountain. Software and hardware manufacturers
          need to help steer others away.
      • And don't forget that 5% and the 1.2% now held by Mac and Linux...

      • @de-void

        You clearly don't have a grasp on the situation. Microsoft currently
        holds 92% of the market. Which version of Windows is illrelevant. They
        only have 8% room for growth. Windows 7 growth is going to come by
        mainly supplanting Vista and XP, which will maintain their
        marketshare at 92%. While Windows 7 may help increase their
        marketshare from 92%, which that still clearly falls under my
        statement. This is why Microsoft is looking for anyway they can to
        increase revenue. Some ways that monopolies can increase revenue is
        to take a single produce and spit it up into tiers with different pricing
        plans. That is why there are so many different versions of Windows,
        bottom line. It's not to help end users, it's to help their bottom line.
        It's called screwing the customer in such a way that it looks like your
        doing them a favor.
        • For the record ...

          ... I am late to this reply, but just to set the record straight in response to your reply:

          Microsoft's overall market penetration of desktop and laptop PC operating systems is, as you point out, in the 90th percentile, leaving them little overall room for growth.

          However, I think you're looking at the market data wrongly. You stated that MS has no room to grow market share. This is wrong for several reasons:

          1) Win7 currently only holds some 8-11% of the PC marketplace today. This leaves at least an 80% market opportunity which is a *HUGE* market by any measure.
          2) You're also ignoring the other markets in which MS is not (yet) a major player. Take, for example, portable music devices, video playback devices, cellphones, netbooks, tablets, etc. These are colossal, dynamic and fast-moving markets with enormous growth opportunities for those with the stomach and the resources to attack them full-on. Microsoft has both and if it can do it right, could be on the verge of another huge growth spurt.
          3) The tablet PC market has yet to be proven. It may peter out to nothing or may explode into a significant market. Now consider all the other software and services that would be required to build apps and experiences for this new form of PC. H-U-G-E opportuinities exist here.
          4) Markets we don't yet know about. Who knows what the next big thing will be, but you can bet your bottom dollar that MS with its enormous resources and not insignificant skills could, if it chooses, decide to enter and capture any number of these new markets with their software and/or services.