Article 43

 

Microsoft And Windows

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Still Looking For Reasons To Keep Away From Windows? Part 22

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Russia’s Would-Be Windows Replacement Gets a Security Upgrade

By Patrick Tucker
Defense One
May 28, 2019

For sensitive communications, the Russian government aims to replace the ubiquitous Microsoft operating system with a bespoke flavor of Linux, a sign of the country’s growing IT independence.

For the first time, Russia has granted its highest security rating to a domestically developed operating system deeming ASTRA LINUX suitable for communications of “special importance” across the military and the rest of the government. The designation clears the way for Russian intelligence and military workers who had been using Microsoft products on office computers to use Astra Linux instead.

There is hope that the domestic OS [operating system] will be able to replace the Microsoft product. “Of course, this is good news for the Russian market,” said German Klimenko, former IT advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin and chairman of the board of Russia’s Digital Economy Development Fund, a venture capital fund run by the government. Klimenko spoke to the Russian newspaper Izvestia on Friday.

Although Russian officials used Windows for secure communications, they heavily modified the software and subjected Windows-equipped PCs to lengthy and rigorous security checks before putting the computers in use. The testing and analysis was to satisfy concerns that vulnerabilities in MICROSOFT OPERATING SYSTEMS could be patched to prevent hacking from countries like the United States. Such evaluations could take three years, according to the newspaper.

A variant of the popular Linux open-source operating system, Astra Linux has been developed over the past decade by Scientific/Manufacturing Enterprise Rusbitech. In January 2018, the Russian Ministry of Defense said it intended to switch to Astra Linux as soon as it met the necessary security standards. Before that, the software had been on some automated control systems, such as the kind sometimes found on air defense systems and some airborne computer systems.

It’s another example of Russia’s self-imposed IT exile, along with the efforts to disconnect the country from the global Internet by 2021 and to create its own domain name service.

“The Russian government doesn’t trust systems developed by foreign companies to handle sensitive data, due to fears of espionage through those systems,"” said Justin Sherman, Cybersecurity Policy Fellow at New America. Using domestically produced technologies to manage sensitive data is just another component of the Kremlin’s broader interest in exercising more autonomy over the digital machines and communications within its borders.

Sam Bendett, research analyst with the “Center for Naval Analyses” International Affairs Group, said, One of the main sticking points for the Russian government was the fact that imported operating systems had vulnerabilities and back doors that Moscow thought could be exploited by international intelligence agencies. This is essentially Russia ensuring its cybersecurity against potential intrusions.

It’s unsurprising that Moscow distrusts Microsoft software, given that Russian-developed malware, like the NotPetya virus used against energy targets in Ukraine, exploits vulnerabilities in Windows.

Sherman says that while the Russian government may find Astra Linux a suitable substitute for Windows, its not a serious competitor anyplace else. There’s no particular reason for others to use this bespoke variant of Linux. Also suspicion of Russian software has been rising internationally. The country’s most successful and recognized software company, Kaspersky, can no longer sell its wares to the U.S. government. Last May, the cybersecurity firm opened a “transparency lab” in Switzerland in an attempt to assuage jittery European customers.

“If this operating system were to be marketed outside of Russia, the prospects likely aren’t great,” Sherman said. Astra Linux doesn’t exactly have worldwide foothold compared to the systems its replacing within Russia, and this is only compounded by the fact that just as the Russian government has security concerns about software made in other countries - Other countries may very well have security concerns about using software made in Russia and endorsed by the Russian government.

But, says Bendett, a potential client list for Russian software does exist outside of Russia, just as there is for Russian anti-aircraft systems. “There is a growing list of nations that will probably want to have its main government and military systems run on an OS from a nation more friendly to their interest like Syria.. or other countries where Russia is seeking to make inroads. So the possibility for export definitely exists.”

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Posted by Elvis on 06/04/19 •
Section Privacy And Rights • Section Microsoft And Windows
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Sunday, August 02, 2015

Still Looking For Reasons To Keep Away From Windows? Part 21

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Microsoft collects information about you, your devices, applications and networks, and your use of those devices, applications and networks. Examples of data we collect include your name, email address, preferences and interests; browsing, search and file history; phone call and SMS data; device configuration and sensor data; and application usage.

Windows 10 spies on you by default

By Shannon Stapleton
Reuters
July 31, 2015

Microsoft’s new Windows 10 operating system is immensely popular, with 14 million downloads in just two days. The price of the free upgrade may just be your privacy, though, as changing Windows 10’s intrusive default settings is difficult.

Technology journalists and bloggers are singing Windows 10s praises, often using the words such as “amazing,” “glorious” and “fantastic.” The operating system has been described as faster, smoother and more user-friendly than any previous version of Windows. According to Wired magazine, more than 14 million people have DOWNLOADED their upgrade since the system was released on Wednesday.

While the upgrade is currently free of charge to owners of licensed copies of Windows 8 and Windows 7, it does come at a price. Several tech bloggers have warned that the privacy settings in the operating system are invasive by default, and that changing them involves over a dozen different screens and an external website.

According to Zach Epstein of BGR News, all of Windows 10s features that could be considered invasions of privacy are enabled by default. Signing in with your Microsoft email account means Windows is reading your emails, contacts and calendar data. The new Edge browser serves you personalized ads. Solitaire now comes with ads. Using Cortana - the voice-driven assistant that represents Redmond’s answer to Apple’s Siri - reportedly “plays fast and loose with your data.”

“I am pretty surprised by the far-reaching data collection that Microsoft seems to want,” web developer Jonathan Porta wrote on his blog. “I am even more surprised by the fact that the settings all default to incredibly intrusive. I am certain that most individuals will just accept the defaults and have no idea how much information they are giving away.”

As examples, Porta cited Microsoft having access to contacts, calendar details, and"other associated input data” such as “typing” and “inking” by default. The operating system also wants access to user locations and location history, both of which could be provided not just to Microsoft, but to its “trusted partners.”

“Who are the trusted partners? By whom are they trusted? I am certainly not the one doing any trusting right now,” Porta wrote, describing the default privacy options as “vague and bordering on scary.”

Alec Meer of the “Rock, Paper, Shotgun” blog POINTED OUT this passage in Microsoft’s 12,000-word, 45-page terms of use agreement:

“We will access, disclose and preserve personal data, including your content (such as the content of your emails, other private communications or files in private folders), when we have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary to.”

While most people are used to ads as the price of accessing free content, writes Meer, Microsoft is not making it clear enough that they are gathering and storing vast amounts of data on your computing habits,ԓ not just browser data.

Opting out of all these default settings requires navigating 13 different screens and a separate website, the bloggers have found. 

Meer was underwhelmed with Microsoft executives claims of transparency and easily understandable terms of use. ԒThere is no world in which 45 pages of policy documents and opt-out settings split across 13 different Settings screens and an external website constitutes real transparency,ӑ he wrote.

Tracking and harvesting user data has been a business model for many tech giants. Privacy advocates have raised concerns over GoogleҔs combing of emails, Apples Siri, and FacebookҒs tracking cookies that keep monitoring peoples browser activity in order to personalize advertising and content.

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Posted by Elvis on 08/02/15 •
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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Looking For A Reason Not to Buy An Xbox?

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New Xbox by NSA partner Microsoft will watch you 24/7

Daily Caller
June 7, 2013

Possible privacy violations by Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox One have come under new scrutiny since it was revealed Thursday that the tech giant was a crucial partner in an expansive Internet surveillance program conducted by the National Security Agency and involving Silicon Valley’s biggest players.
7, 2013

One of the consoles key features is the full integration of the Kinect, a motion sensing camera that allows users to play games, scroll through menus, and generally operate the Xbox just using hand gestures. Microsoft has touted the camera as the hallmark of a new era of interactivity in gaming.

What Microsoft has not promoted, however, is the fact that you WILL NOT BE ABLE TO POWER ON THE CONSOLE without first enabling the Kinect, designed to detect both heartbeats and eye movement. and positioning yourself in front of it.

Disturbingly, a RECENTLY PUBLISHED Microsoft patent reveals the Kinect has the capability to determine exactly when users are viewing ads broadcast by the Xbox through its eye movement tracking. Consistent ad viewers would be granted rewards, according to the patent.

Perhaps the feature most worrysome to privacy advocates is the REQUIREMENT THAT THE XBOX CONNECT TO THE INTERNET at least once every 24 hours. Many critics have asserted that Microsoft will follow the lead of other Silicon Valley companies and use their console to gather data about its users, particularly through the Kinect, and collect it through the online connection users can’t avoid.

Microsoft has promised that customers will be able to pause the cameras function, but have put off questions on the precise specifics of their privacy policies.

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Posted by Elvis on 06/22/13 •
Section Privacy And Rights • Section Microsoft And Windows
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Saturday, June 08, 2013

Still Looking For Reasons To Keep Away From Windows? Part 20

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How NSA access was built into Windows

By Duncan Campbell
Heise Security
April 4, 1999

A careless mistake by Microsoft programmers has revealed that special access codes prepared by the US National Security Agency have been secretly built into Windows. The NSA access system is built into every version of the Windows operating system now in use, except early releases of Windows 95 (and its predecessors). The discovery comes close on the heels of the revelations earlier this year that another US software giant, LOTUS, had built an NSA “help information” trapdoor into its Notes system, and that security functions on other software systems had been deliberately crippled.

The first discovery of the new NSA access system was made two years ago by British researcher Dr Nicko van Someren. But it was only a few weeks ago when a second researcher rediscovered the access system. With it, he found the evidence linking it to NSA.

Computer security specialists have been aware for two years that unusual features are contained inside a standard Windows software “driver” used for security and encryption functions. The driver, called ADVAPI.DLL, enables and controls a range of security functions. If you use Windows, you will find it in the C:\Windows\system directory of your computer.

ADVAPI.DLL works closely with Microsoft Internet Explorer, but will only run cryptographic functions that the US governments allows Microsoft to export. That information is bad enough news, from a European point of view. Now, it turns out that ADVAPI will run special programmes inserted and controlled by NSA. As yet, no-one knows what these programmes are, or what they do.

Dr Nicko van Someren reported at last year’s Crypto 98 conference that he had disassembled the ADVADPI driver. He found it contained two different keys. One was used by Microsoft to control the cryptographic functions enabled in Windows, in compliance with US export regulations. But the reason for building in a second key, or who owned it, remained a mystery.

A second key

Two weeks ago, a US security company came up with conclusive evidence that the second key belongs to NSA. Like Dr van Someren, Andrew Fernandez, chief scientist with Cryptonym of Morrisville, North Carolina, had been probing the presence and significance of the two keys. Then he checked the latest Service Pack release for Windows NT4, Service Pack 5. He found that Microsoft’s developers had failed to remove or “strip” the debugging symbols used to test this software before they released it. Inside the code were the labels for the two keys. One was called “KEY”. The other was called “NSAKEY”.

Fernandes reported his re-discovery of the two CAPI keys, and their secret meaning, to “Advances in Cryptology, Crypto’99” conference held in Santa Barbara. According to those present at the conference, Windows developers attending the conference did not deny that the “NSA” key was built into their software. But they refused to talk about what the key did, or why it had been put there without users’ knowledge.

A third key?!

But according to two witnesses attending the conference, even Microsoft’s top crypto programmers were astonished to learn that the version of ADVAPI.DLL shipping with Windows 2000 contains not two, but three keys. Brian LaMachia, head of CAPI development at Microsoft was “stunned” to learn of these discoveries, by outsiders. The latest discovery by Dr van Someren is based on advanced search methods which test and report on the “entropy” of programming code.

Within the Microsoft organisation, access to Windows source code is said to be highly compartmentalized, making it easy for modifications to be inserted without the knowledge of even the respective product managers.

Researchers are divided about whether the NSA key could be intended to let US government users of Windows run classified cryptosystems on their machines or whether it is intended to open up anyone’s and everyone’s Windows computer to intelligence gathering techniques deployed by NSA’s burgeoning corps of “information warriors”.

According to Fernandez of Cryptonym, the result of having the secret key inside your Windows operating system “is that it is tremendously easier for the NSA to load unauthorized security services on all copies of Microsoft Windows, and once these security services are loaded, they can effectively compromise your entire operating system”. The NSA key is contained inside all versions of Windows from Windows 95 OSR2 onwards.

“For non-American IT managers relying on Windows NT to operate highly secure data centres, this find is worrying”, he added. “The US government is currently making it as difficult as possible for “strong” crypto to be used outside of the US. That they have also installed a cryptographic back-door in the world’s most abundant operating system should send a strong message to foreign IT managers”.

“How is an IT manager to feel when they learn that in every copy of Windows sold, Microsoft has a ‘back door’ for NSA - making it orders of magnitude easier for the US government to access your computer?” he asked.

Can the loophole be turned round against the snoopers?

Dr van Someren feels that the primary purpose of the NSA key inside Windows may be for legitimate US government use. But he says that there cannot be a legitimate explanation for the third key in Windows 2000 CAPI. “It looks more fishy”, he said.

Fernandez believes that NSA’s built-in loophole can be turned round against the snoopers. The NSA key inside CAPI can be replaced by your own key, and used to sign cryptographic security modules from overseas or unauthorised third parties, unapproved by Microsoft or the NSA. This is exactly what the US government has been trying to prevent. A demonstration “how to do it” program that replaces the NSA key can be FOUND on Cryptonym’s WEBSITE.

According to one leading US cryptographer, the IT world should be thankful that the subversion of Windows by NSA has come to light before the arrival of CPUs THAT HANDLES ENCRYPTED INSTRUCTION SETS. These would make the type of discoveries made this month impossible. “Had the next-generation CPU’s with encrypted instruction sets already been deployed, we would have never found out about NSAKEY.”

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Posted by Elvis on 06/08/13 •
Section Privacy And Rights • Section Microsoft And Windows
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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Still Looking For Reasons To Keep Away From Windows? Part 19

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New Anti-Piracy Windows 7 Update “Phones Home” to Microsoft Every 90 Days

By Lauren Weinstein
Lauren Weinstein’s Blog
February 11, 2010

Sometimes a seemingly small software update can usher in a whole new world. When Microsoft shortly pushes out a Windows 7 update with the reportedly innocuous title “Update for Microsoft Windows (KB971033)”—it will be taking your Windows 7 system where it has never been before.

And it may not be a place where you want to go.

Imagine that you’re sitting quietly in your living-room at your PC, perhaps watching YouTube. Suddenly, a pair of big, burly guys barge into your house and demand that you let them check your computer to make sure that it’s “genuine” and not running pirated software. You protest that you bought it fair and square, but they’re insistent—so you give in and let them proceed.

Even though you insist that you bought your laptop from the retail computer store down the street many months ago, and didn’t install any pirate software, the visitors declare that your computer “isn’t genuine” according to their latest pirated systems lists, and they say that “while we’ll let you keep using it, we’re modified your system so that it will constantly nag in your face until you pay up for a legit system!” And they head out the door to drop in on the eBay-loving grandmother next door.

You then notice that the wallpaper on your PC has turned black, and these strange notifications keep popping up urging you to “come clean.”

Ridiculous? Well, uh, actually no.

Microsoft most definitely has a valid interest in fighting the piracy of their products. It’s a serious problem, with negative ramifications for Microsoft and its users.

But in my opinion, Microsoft is about to embark on a dramatic ESCALATION OF ANTI-PIRACY EFFORTS that many consumers are likely to consider to be a SERIOUS AND UNWANTED INTRUSION at the very least.

It’s important for you to understand WHAT MICROSOFT IS GOING TO DO, what your options are, and why I am very concerned about their plans.

Back in June 2006, in a series of postings, I revealed how Microsoft was performing unannounced “phone home” operations over the Internet as part of their Windows Genuine Advantage authentication system for Windows XP. (The last in that series of postings describes Microsoft’s reaction to the resulting controversy.) The surrounding circumstances even spawned a lawsuit against Microsoft, which coincidentally was recently dismissed by a judge.

But Microsoft has continued to push the anti-piracy envelope, now under the name Windows Activation Technologies (WAT).

This time around, to the company’s credit (and many thanks to them for this!) Microsoft reached out to me starting several months ago for briefings and discussion about their plans for a major new WAT thrust—on the basis, to which I agreed, that I not discuss it publicly until now.

The release of Windows 7 “Update for Microsoft Windows (KB971033)” will change the current activation and anti-piracy behavior of Windows 7 by triggering automatic “phone home” operations over the Internet to Microsoft servers, typically for now at intervals of around 90 days.

The purpose? To verify that you’re not running a pirated copy of Windows, and to take various actions changing the behavior of your PC if the WAT system believes that you are not now properly authenticated and “genuine”—even if up to that point in time it had been declaring you to be A-OK.

Note that I’m not talking about the one-time activation that you (or your PC manufacturer) performs on new Windows systems to authenticate them to Microsoft initially. I’m talking a procedure that would “check-in” your system with Microsoft at quarterly intervals, and that could take actions to significantly change your “user experience” whenever the authentication regime declares you to have fallen from grace.

These automatic queries will repeatedly—apparently for as long as Windows is installed—validate your Windows 7 system against Microsoft’s latest database of pirated system signatures (currently including more than 70 activation exploits known to Microsoft).

If your system matches—again even if up to that time (which could be months or even years since you obtained the system) it had been declared to be genuine—then your system will be “downgraded” to “non-genuine” status until you take steps to obtain what Microsoft considers to be an authentic, validated, Windows 7 license. In some cases you might be able to get this for free if you can convince Microsoft that you were the victim of a scam—but you’ll have to show them proof. Otherwise, you’ll need to pull out your wallet.

I’m told that the KB971033 update is scheduled to deploy to the manual downloading “Genuine Microsoft Software” site on February 16, and start pushing out automatically through the Windows Update environment on February 23.

The update will reportedly be tagged simply as an “Important” update. This means that if you use the Windows Update system, the update will be installed to your Windows 7 PC based on whatever settings you currently have engaged for that level of update—it will not otherwise ask for specific permission to proceed with installation.

If your Windows Update settings are such that you manually install updates, you can choose to decline this particular update and you can also uninstall it later after installation—without any negative effects per se. But don’t assume that this will always “turn back the clock” in terms of the update’s effects. More on this below.

Also, reportedly if the 90-day interval WAT piracy checking system “calls” are unable to connect to the Microsoft servers (or even if they are manually blocked from connecting, e.g. by firewall policies) there will reportedly be no ill effects.

However—and this is very important—if the update is installed and the authentication system then (after connecting with the associated Microsoft authentication servers at any point) decides that your system is not genuine, the “downgrading” that occurs will not be reversible by uninstalling the update afterward.

The WAT authentication system also includes various other features, such as the ability to automatically replace authentication/license related code on PCs if it decides that the official code has been tampered with (Microsoft rather euphemistically calls this procedure “self heal").

I’ve mentioned that Windows 7 systems will be “downgraded” to “non-genuine” status if they’re flagged as suspected pirates. What does this mean?

Essentially, they’ll behave the same way they would if they had failed to be authenticated and activated initially within the grace period after purchase.

Downgraded systems will still function much as usual fundamentally, but there will be some very significant (and very annoying) changes if your system has been designated non-genuine.

The background wallpaper will change to black. You can set it back to whatever you want, but once an hour or so it will reset again to black.

Various “nag” notifications will appear at intervals to “remind” you that your system has been tagged as a likely pirate and offering you the opportunity to “come clean”—becoming authorized and legitimate by buying a new Windows 7 license. Some of these nags will be windows that appear at boot or login time, others will appear frequently (perhaps every 20 minutes or so) as main screen windows and taskbar popup notices.

Systems that are considered to be non-genuine also have only limited access to other Microsoft updates of any kind (e.g., access to high priority security updates, but not anything else, may be permitted).

And of course, under the new WAT regime you run the risk of being downgraded into this position at any time during the life of your PC.

In response to my specific queries about how downgraded systems (particularly unattended systems) would behave vis-a-vis existing application environments, Microsoft has said that they have taken considerable effort to avoid having the downgrade “nag system” interfere with the actual running of other applications, including stealing of windows’ focus. It remains to be seen how well this aspect turns out in practice.

All of this brings us to a very basic question. Why would any PC owner—honest or pirate—voluntarily participate in such a continuing “phone home” authentication regime?

Obviously, knowledgeable pirates will avoid the whole thing like the plague any way that they can.

Microsoft’s view, as explained to me and as primarily emphasized in their blog posting that will appear today announcing the WAT changes, is that honest Windows 7 users will want to know if their systems are running unauthentic copies of the operating system, since (Microsoft asserts and indeed is the case) those systems have a significant likelihood of also containing dangerous viruses or other potentially damaging illicit software that “ride” onto the PC along with the unauthentic copy of the OS.

But even if we assume that there’s a noteworthy risk of infections on systems running pirated copies of Windows 7, the approach that Microsoft is now taking doesn’t seem to make sense even for honest consumers.

If Microsoft’s main concern were really just notifying users about “contaminated” systems, they could do so without triggering the non-genuine downgrading process and demands that the user purchase a new license (demands that will be extremely confusing to many users).

As I originally discussed in How Innocents Can Be Penalized by Windows Genuine Advantage, it’s far more common than many people realize for completely innocent users to be running perfectly usable—but not formally authenticated—copies of Windows Operating Systems through no fault whatever of their own.

OK, let’s review where we stand.

The new Microsoft WAT regime relies upon a series of autonomous “cradle to grave” authentication verification connections to a central and ever-expanding Microsoft piracy signature database, even in the absence of major hardware changes or other significant configuration alterations that might otherwise cause the OS or local applications to query the user for explicit permission to reauthenticate.

Microsoft will trigger forced downgrading to non-genuine status if they believe a Windows 7 system is potentially pirated based on their “phone home” checks that will occur at (for now) 90 day intervals during the entire life of Windows 7 on a given PC, even months or years after purchase.

That Microsoft has serious piracy problems, and has “limited” the PC downgrading process to black wallpaper, repeating nagging at users, and extremely constrained update access isn’t the key point. Nor is the ostensibly “voluntary” nature of the update triggering these capabilities (I say ostensibly since almost certainly most users will have the update installed automatically and won’t even realize what it means at the time).

The new Microsoft WAT update and its associated actions represent unacceptable intrusions into the usability of consumer products potentially long after the products have been purchased and have been previously declared to be genuine.

Microsoft is not entirely alone in such moves. For example, a major PC game manufacturer has apparently announced that their games will soon no longer run at all if you don’t have an Internet connection to allow them to authenticate at each run.

Still, games and other applications are one thing, operating systems are something else altogether. And regardless of whether we’re talking about games or Windows 7, it’s unacceptable for consumers to be permanently shackled to manufacturers via lifetime authentication regimes—particularly ones that can easily impact innocent parties—that can degrade their ability to use the products that they’ve purchased in many cases months or even years earlier.

Fundamentally, for Microsoft to assert that they have the right to treat ordinary PC-using consumers in this manner—declaring their systems to be non-genuine and downgrading them at any time—is rather staggering.

Make no mistake about it, fighting software piracy is indeed important, but Microsoft seems to have lost touch with a vast swath of their loyal and honest users if the firm actually believes their new WAT anti-piracy monitoring system is an acceptable policy model.

My recommendations to persons who currently run or plan to run Windows 7 are simplicity themselves.

I recommend that you strongly consider rejecting the manual installation of the Windows Activation Technologies update KB971033, and do not permit Windows Update to install it (this will require that you not have your PC configured in update automatic installation mode, which has other ramifications—so you may wish to consult a knowledgeable associate if you’re not familiar with Windows Update configuration issues).

And if at some point in the future you find that the update has been installed and your PC is still running normally, REMOVE the update as soon as possible.

While I certainly appreciate Microsoft’s piracy problems, and the negative impact that these have both on the company and consumers, I believe that the approach represented by this kind of escalation on the part of Microsoft and others—into what basically amounts to a perpetual anti-piracy surveillance regime embedded within already purchased consumer equipment—is entirely unacceptable.

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Posted by Elvis on 02/14/10 •
Section Privacy And Rights • Section Microsoft And Windows
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