St. John Tradewinds News

Gigi-Gadget Guy

Recently, a friend called me, frantic, because his copy of the Microsoft Windows Operating System was telling him that his software was pirated.

“Why is my computer telling me that my Windows OS is not genuine? Do I have a virus or something?” he asked.

“Worse,” I told him.

It seemed that Microsoft’s Windows Genuine Advantage Tool — WGA for short — had hijacked his system.

WGA is an anti-piracy mechanism designed by Microsoft to keep pirating of their Windows XP Operating System to a dull roar. However, for those who have experienced its wrath, “Genuine Attack” is a better description.

Now it had branded my friend’s computer as running a counterfeit OS. Meaning in effect, that if he wanted to install certain pieces of software that required the Windows Update libraries, he was out of luck. I had personally set that computer up for him three years ago, and I was confident that I left it with the legally-licensed copy of Windows XP — complete with all pertinent updates and patches — that had come packaged with his computer.

Meaning that WGA had provided a “false positive.” Or so I thought.

This is not an uncommon dilemma, according to Ken Fisher at tech-blog Ars Technica: http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20070124-8690.html
“Windows Genuine Advantage is a controversy wrapped in an enigma buried inside a migraine headache — or at least that’s what it is for the millions of users who have been falsely identified as software pirates as a result of WGA’s attempt to root out piracy… Microsoft admitted that over 20 percent of WGA failures were caused by something other than key piracy, that is, piracy involving either a product key generator or use of a volume licensing key,” according to Fisher. “The company would not reveal the exact nature of these results, other than to say that a portion of them stemmed from unauthorized use of OEM keys on non-OEM hardware (i.e., someone using a Dell copy of XP on a non-Dell machine). At the time, Microsoft refused to comment on the rate of pure false positives, that is, the rate of verifiably incorrect identifications of pirated software… With the release of this latest data, Microsoft said that WGA had a false positive rate ‘under 1 percent.’ A more precise number has not been forthcoming.”

“This is an impressive figure until you realize that this means that as many as 5 million people were wrongly accused of being software pirates,” Fisher continued. “From Microsoft’s point of view, the error rate appears to be acceptable.”

A-ha! So it was all Microsoft’s fault… Right?

It turned out that things were a bit more complicated. My friend had purchased his computer in Puerto Rico with a supposedly authentic Windows XP OEM Disc included. Since the OS was already installed on the machine when he bought it, all that was left for me to do was to run some OS updates and to install a virus-scanner and a spyware-scanner. No problem.

Upon further inspection however, it turned out that the Windows Disc in question was in fact a burned-copy with a very convincing counterfeit “Windows™” sticker. Since neither I nor my friend had yet to remove this disc it from its sleeve, no one had ever even noticed. Meaning that my friend now basically had three choices:

1) Continue to run a crippled system

2) Purchase a legitimate copy of Windows XP

3) Forget Microsoft altogether and switch to Linux (not for the novice or the faint of heart)

So what does a new, “valid” copy of Windows XP run for? Somewhere in the neighborhood of $250! Pretty steep for what amounts to a license (the right to use the software) to an OS that Microsoft is likely to stop supporting in the near future. For that price a person could buy a fully functioning computer with the OS already installed! Thus, it comes as no surprise that many people the world over have tried to get around paying for Windows and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. A situation no doubt exacerbated by Microsoft’s draconian anti-piracy efforts.

Further investigation revealed that not only was my friend running a pirated copy of XP, but a pirated copy of Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite, Macromedia Studio and Nero Burning ROM — all of which he assumed  were legal programs that came with his machine.

With pirated software so seemingly ubiquitous these days, how many more unwitting software pirates are out there?

Questions and comments can be directed to: conan@tradewinds.vi