Saturday, July 01, 2006

Is Microsoft about to release a Windows kill switch?

Is Microsoft planning to make their new anti-piracy tool, Windows Genuine Advantage compulsory? And if they do, what happens to people who refuse to install WGA?

Could Microsoft be planning to remotely shut down incorrectly licenced or unlicenced copies of Windows?

June 27: David Pollak over at Interesting People quotes a Microsoft help-desk operator:

in the fall, having the latest WGA will become mandatory and if its not installed, Windows will give a 30 day warning and when the 30 days is up and WGA isn't installed, Windows will stop working, so you might as well install WGA now.

June 27: Ed Bott at Zdnet picks up on the story. Being suspicious of anything coming from "a front-line tech support drone", he asked Microsoft for an official confirmation or denial. Instead, he got the following:

As we have mentioned previously, as the WGA Notifications program expands in the future, customers may be required to participate. [emphasis added by Ed Bott] Microsoft is gathering feedback in select markets to learn how it can best meet its customers' needs and will keep customers informed of any changes to the program.

June 30: Microsoft's Public Relations firm contact Ed Bott, and deny -- sort of -- that Microsoft could or would shut down copies of Windows remotely:

I’m still trying to reconcile this rambling response with the terse statement I received from a Microsoft representative on Monday, flatly refusing to deny a report that WGA will become mandatory in the fall. [...] In fact, I can’t find anything in this new response that contradicts the earlier statement I received from a Microsoft spokesperson

Later that day, Microsoft, via their PR firm, flatly refuse to answer any more questions about WGA.

June 30: Respected computer security researcher Bruce Schneier blogs about the hypothetical kill switch:

The stupidity of this idea is amazing. Not just the inevitability of false positives, but the potential for a hacker to co-opt the controls. I hope this rumor ends up not being true.

Although if they actually do it, the backlash could do more for non-Windows OSs than anything those OSs could do for themselves.

I'm going to put my reputation (such that it is) on the line here:

Microsoft is absolutely positively working on a Windows kill switch, no doubt about it.

How do I know? One word: FlexGo.

If Microsoft is serious about FlexGo ("Pay as you go computing") -- and you better believe that they are -- then they absolutely have to be thinking about ways to ensure people do, in fact, pay as they go. Otherwise, FlexGo will be just the world's biggest give-away of PCs and software.

Microsoft says:

Microsoft FlexGo makes it possible to lower the entry cost of PCs and let people pay for computers as they use them. This technology supports two models today: a pay-as-you-go model enabled by prepaid cards or a subscription model with monthly payments.

People on the subscription model have to pay the monthly bill or else the debt collector will come take the PC back. But what about those on prepaid cards? If the PC keeps working, what's going to motivate them to buy recharge cards?

There is only one thing that can ensure they keep buying those cards. Windows has to lock itself down and stop working until they do. And that means a kill switch. Windows will have to recognise when the prepaid card has run out, and stop working.

That kill switch may or may not be put into standard Windows (XP or Vista). It may never work sufficently well for Microsoft to inflict it on developed nations; Microsoft might decide the backlash from the kill switch will hurt them too much; they might even decide to open-source the whole of Windows. (Yeah, right, and the Queen of England is a lizard.)

But you can bet the farm on Microsoft working on a kill switch right now. They know that this could be a PR disaster, but they need it desperately -- which is why they're so reluctant to comment on it. They're hoping that people will just get used to WGA, just like they got used to Product Activation. Microsoft are counting on users not realising the long-term consequences until they have the ability to lock people out of their own computers.

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