Windows 7 activation update aims at high-volume pirates | Ed Bott’s Microsoft Report | ZDNet.com
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 www.microsoft.com/genuine 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
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.