Yesterday the media and the blogosphere engaged in a bout of collective hyerventilation over Microsoft offering free software in exchange for being able to snoop on users for three months. While this offer is now gone (according to Microsoft they have all the participants needed), it does raise an interesting question - Would you let Microsoft snoop on your computer usage in exchange for free software?
The program in question was Microsoft's Windows Feedback Program and here was how it worked. You already had to be running Windows XP or Windows Vista to be eligible to sign up to be a tester. If accepted onto the program you would be asked to install a program onto your system that monitored how your used Windows for a period of three months. You'd also be asked to take part in surveys. At the end of that period, you got to choose one piece of software from the following list:
- Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate (32-bit and 64-bit DVD)
- Microsoft Office Ultimate 2007
- Microsoft Money Plus Premium
- Microsoft Student with Encarta Premium 2008
- Microsoft Streets and Trips 2008
Many media outlets were falsely reporting that Microsoft was handing out free software at the beginning - that's wrong, no software would be handed out unless a participant had participated for three months.
So, what information would Microsoft be collecting? Well, here are a few examples given by Microsoft:
- Windows settings and usage, such as the number of user accounts on the computer and the view settings for Control Panel (that is, if you use the default Category view or the Classic view to display Control Panel).
- Details about your computer hardware, such as processor type and speed (as well as the number of processors), system memory, video memory, and other hardware configuration information.
- File and folder information, such as the number of files and folders located in common places (for example, in Documents).
- Which programs you open (for example, which application you use to read your e-mail).
- Changes you make to your hardware or software.
- Problems you encounter, such as application crashes.
The privacy page gave some more details:
- Number and type of software errors encountered.
- Performance of software and hardware products installed on your computer
- File and folder structures on your computer.
- What transpired during a network problem, including data obtained from various network connections, components, and devices installed on your computer.
- System-specific information, such as network devices, drivers, and settings installed on your computer.
Why does Microsoft want this information? Here's the reason given:
- Identification of top user problems; for example, how often does a computer crash or stop? How often do customers update Windows? How often are problems reported?
- How customers use their computers; for example, how often do customers use their computers? How often do they connect to the Internet? How long do they stay connected?
- How users store files on computers; for example, how much storage space do customers have on their computers? How much storage space is used? Where do customers store their files?
What about sensitive data? Will Microsoft be snooping there?
We do not intentionally collect sensitive information, such as the passwords on the user accounts, the contents of any of your personal files, the name or HTTP address of any of the websites you mark as Favorites, or what websites you visit. [emphasis added]
The important word to note there is "intentionally." When sending crash dumps and other such data to Microsoft (or anyone else for that matter) there's always a chance that it can contain sensitive information.
So, would you let Microsoft snoop on your computer usage for three months in exchange for free software?