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Microsoft caught with pants down over hardware IDs

After the brouhaha, we take a closer look at MS' privacy crises

By Graham Lea, 12 Mar 1999

Microsoft has brought upon itself two major privacy crises, one connected with Windows 98 hardware identification (it's calling it HWID) and the other with document identification in Office. Windows 98 must be registered, supposedly to make it possible for Microsoft support technicians to troubleshoot problems by knowing what hardware a user had "when they call in". Of course, Microsoft doesn't actually help with its many Windows 98 bugs if you do "call in", which brings us to what's likely the real reason for collecting the information, denied by Microsoft: it's for marketing purposes and to discourage piracy. After howls of protest, Microsoft has had to admit that "HWID data is not necessary for us to serve our customers' product support needs". Now Microsoft has also had to say it will stop receipt of new HWID via; that it will modify the registration wizard for Windows 98 in a bug fix; provide some software so that users can purge their Windows registry; and purge the database at Microsoft where it has stored the data. Microsoft also claimed, possibly on legal advice, that there was a bug in the Windows registration code that caused the HWID to be sent even if users had elected not to do this. Of course. A globally unique identifier (GUID) consists of a 32-digit number, with 12 digits derived from the Ethernet adaptor, but if one is not present, a fictitious number is used. Microsoft claimed that the numbers were used to trap broken hyperlinks, which is far-fetched because it offers no support for this. The remainder of the 32-digit figure consists of a number generated by an Office application. Users registering online then unknowingly sent the GUID to Microsoft. The discoverer of all this was Richard Smith of developer Phar Lap, who suspected it was a means of identifying pirated copies of software. Microsoft denies that it was part of a copy protection scheme. Of course. Then came the revelation: Microsoft said it was confident that hardware information was not being stored in its marketing database, but it was "investigating whether it is being stored in other databases". Now just what could that mean? Could it be that Microsoft was sending out information from a database to detector vans tuned-in to PCs running unregistered copies of Windows 98? With the new software piracy law in the US allowing penalties of the order of a few hundred thousand dollars (and a spell in prison), this could be a nice little earner. The latest move is that Microsoft is promising a new registration system for, and that "our registration database will be offline" and not able to provide "a few services". Those who have had reason to check a password over the last year, for example for MSDN, will know the database never was online, although at the time we attributed this to Microsoft not being able to get SQL Server working. A separate issue that has come to the fore at the same time is the Office 97 unique identifier for contained in documents created by the product. Microsoft says this is to allow documents to be referenced on a network, and that it has no database of them. However, because of privacy issues that have been raised, Microsoft says it will provide a means of eliminating these identifiers. Let's speculate as to possible uses of these identifiers for a moment. Suppose a whistle blower at Microsoft used Word to produce an email, and sent it to a regulator, or a rival company. Microsoft could demand electronic copies of emails during litigation and find out who it was who was leaking secrets. Sound far fetched? Well that's Microsoft all over. Of course the same facility could be offered to executives of large corporates who had similar concerns, and who might be swayed about the desirability of fingerprinted documents: "Just sign up for a five-year rolling contract, dump WordPerfect, and we'll give you the fingerprinting kit." Microsoft's claims of innocence are unconvincing, since a unique reference number could have been created on the fly. And remember, bug fixes with Windows Update are only possible online using IE. Of course, one sure way to keep information from Microsoft is to register Windows 98 by snail mail, to forego updates, and not to visit any Microsoft Web site. There is another way as well: use a Windows-free machine. The cultural gulf between control freaks and open source freedom fighters is widening daily. Microsoft probably decided to scrap these schemes because of the adverse publicity that Intel received a result of the Pentium III serial number issue -- and some unfinished business in the nation's capital. One might have thought that Microsoft would have learnt its lesson with the fiasco in 1995 over the MSN registration wizard, which passed to Microsoft a list of software packages on users' PCs. It seems that old dogs stick to old tricks. ® Complete Register trial coverage

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