Microsoft to publish privacy guidelines

Like most Windows users, I have my PCs set up to get security and other critical patches from Microsoft automatically. It seems the most sensible thing to do so you don’t need to remember to manually go to Windows Update to check if your OS needs updating.

Part of the price you pay is that your computer connects to a Microsoft server now and again which does the checking as to whether you need any updates. According to Microsoft’s published privacy guidelines for Windows XP Pro SP2, no personally-identifiable information passes from your computer at those times:

Automatic Updates collects general system information from your computer with each visit so that you receive the updates that work best with your computer. This information may also include a Global Unique Identifier (GUID). The GUID does not contain information that can be used to identify you.

I’m happy with that so all well and good.

A bit alarming, then, to learn that the Windows Genuine Advantage anti-piracy tool – probably installed on your PC when it first came out last year, and definitely in a recent patch update – silently communicates with a Microsoft server, without your knowledge, every time you boot up your PC.

For the record, I like and use many of Microsoft’s products and I’m not in the anti-Microsoft camp. Far from it. Yet this is precisely the type of activity that many people would consider to be consistent with spyware and undoubtedly does a lot to reinforce their negative perceptions about Microsoft.

As a result, I’ve installed RemoveWGA, a utility that removes the unnecessary notification to Microsoft every time you boot up, but does not touch the software validation functionality without which you’d be unlikely to get any security or other critical OS patches in the future.

Microsoft has recognized their error with such software behaviour and plans to do something about it.

ZDNet reports that in August, Microsoft plans to publicly release the privacy rules its employees have to follow when developing products. In ZDNet’s report, chief privacy officer Peter Cullen said:

“We have a basic promise that we will be as transparent as possible,” Cullen said. “We neglected the area of the [Windows Genuine Advantage] notifications, so that’s definitely going to be changed…It’s just an oversight.”

Microsoft’s privacy rules offer guidelines on providing people with proper notification and options in certain situations – for example, when a software application is about to send information via the internet to its maker, Cullen said. Microsoft believes it is the first major software company to publish these guidelines, intended primary for IT pros and developers.

This is good news, confirming that it’s about people not the software. In the meantime, I’d install RemoveWGA if you’re concerned about what happens every time you start up your Windows PC.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Dennis Howlett

    I’m not especially anti-MSFT either Neville but even so I just don’t get any of these (or many other) issues on the Mac platform – despite it’s proprietary lock-in nature. BTW – have you seen the editorial guidelines for print pubs wishing to include MSFT betas? Talk about mind control…

  2. neville

    Mac vs. Windows is a mega-topic from a platform point of view, Dennis. I wouldn’t know where to start in comparative commenting!

    Re print pubs, are you talking about including betas on DVD give-aways? I think most software publishers have restrictions on that.

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