Last week Microsoft was sued in a Washington district court for allegedly violating privacy laws through its use of Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) anti-piracy mechanism in Windows XP. Is WGA a legitimate anti-piracy tool or is it spyware?
This latest class-action lawsuit (it's not the first to target WGA) claims that Microsoft made false claims regarding what information WGA would send to verify the authenticity of a Windows installation. Specifically, the lawsuit highlights that Microsoft claims that no personal information is sent during validation, while in fact WGA is said to provide information on the user's IP address and other details that could be used to trace the user.
The complaint goes on to state that Microsoft described WGA as a necessary security update rather than highlight to users that it was an anti-piracy update. Also, the way WGA means that users are prevented users from removing it from their PCs following installation.
Seems to me that this issue boils down to the question of whether WGA is a legitimate tool that Microsoft should be able to use to fight piracy, or a piece of spyware. Despite having deep reservations about the entire WGA mechanism, even I find it impossible to label the tool spyware ...
... but ...
The problem with WGA is that Microsoft hasn't been clear in the past with users. Back in June of 2006 Microsoft decided to bundle up a WGA with other Critical updates to send to users via Windows Update. That alone was an outrageous breach of trust, and one I feel that Microsoft walked away from far too easily. Mislabeling WGA as a Critical update was one of those tacky "spyware" moves, and a move that erodes trust.
Then you have the issue of WGA passing judgment on systems and the user having very few options to try to solve the issue. It took a long time (and a lot of pushing and shoving) to get Microsoft to acknowledge that WGA wasn't always accurate. During the early days people were faced with two choice - pay up for a new license or be labeled a pirate. That was unacceptable.
So, while WGA isn't spyware, the way Microsoft pushed it to users was very underhanded. Things have improved now, but that's no excuse to overlook past behavior.