Article 43

 

Microsoft And Windows

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Book: Down and Out in the New Economy

image: Down And Out in the New Economy

Homeless and Unemployed in an Economy We’re Supposed to Think Is Liberating
In Ilana Gershon’s new book ”DOWN AND OUT IN THE NEW ECONOMY,” the employer power dynamic is called into question.

By Ilana Gershon
University of Chicago Press
April 27, 2017

The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Dont Find) Work Today by Ilana Gershon (University of Chicago Press, April 2017):

Chris, an independent contractor in his midfifties, knows a lot about what it means to deal with an unstable job market, especially during those moments when you are between gigs and don’t know when you are going to get the next one. There was a period in 2012 where he hadn’t had a contracting job for a while, and he had no idea how he was going to pay his rent. He realized he might be able to make his rent for another month, but if he didn’t get a job soon, he might be homeless. He decided that he needed to get his body ready for this very likely possibility. I started to sleep on the floor a few hours each night, as long as I could take it, so I could get used to sleeping on a sidewalk or on the dirt. That’s how bad it looked. It just seemed hopeless, Chris said. Out of the blue, a staffing agency based in India contacted him and offered him a contract in the Midwest, giving him enough money to make it through this bad patch. But this stark moment, in which he saw homelessness around the corner, is part and parcel of the downside of careers made up of temporary jobs. Chris responded to this possibility in the way that you are supposed to if you are constantly enhancing yourself. He began to train his body for living on the streets, realizing that he needed to learn how to sleep without a bed. He was determined to be flexible and to adapt to potential new circumstances. Seeing the self as a bundle of skills, in practice, means that for some people enhancing your skills involves training yourself to survive being homeless. This too is a logical outcome of our contemporary employment model.

I have studied how people are responding to this new way of thinking about work and what it means to be a worker. In the United States, people are moving away from thinking that when they enter into an employment contract, they are metaphorically renting their capacities to an employer for a bounded period of time. Many people are no longer using a notion of the self-as-rented-property as an underlying metaphor and are starting to think of themselves as though they are a business, although not everyone likes this new metaphor or accepts all its implications. When you switch to thinking about the employment contract as a business-to-business relationship, much changes - how you present yourself as a desirable employee, what it means to be a good employer, what your relationships with your coworkers should be like, the relationship between a job and a career, and how you prepare yourself for the future.

The self-as-business metaphor makes a virtue of flexibility as well as the practical ways people might respond in their daily lives to conditions of instability and insecurity. As Gina Neff points out in Venture Labor, the model encourages people to embrace risk as a positive, even sought-out, element of how they individually should craft a career. Each time you switch jobs, you risk. You don’t know the amount of time you will have at a job before having to find a new one, and you risk how lucky you will be at getting that job and the next job. And with every job transition, you risk the salary that you might make. If there is a gap between jobs, then some people will find that they no longer experience a reliable, steady, upward trajectory in their salaries as they navigate the contemporary job market. Yet this is what you are now supposed to embrace as liberating.

Chris’s experiences cycling between employment and increasing periods of unemployment was a familiar story for me. I interviewed so many people in their late forties to early sixties who had a few permanent jobs early in their careers. But as companies increasingly focused on having a more transient workforce, these white-collar workers found their career trajectories veering from what they first thought their working life would look like. They thought that they might climb the organizational ladder in one or maybe even three companies over the course of their lifetime. Instead, they found that at some point in their mid to late forties, they started having shorter and shorter stints at different companies. The jobs, some would say, would last as long as a project. And as they grew older, the gaps between permanent jobs could start growing longer and longer. They struggled to make do, often using up their savings or selling their homes as they hoped to get the next job. Some started to find consulting jobs in order to make ends meet before landing the hoped-for permanent job, and then found themselves trapped on the consulting trackliving only in the gig economy. True, not everyone felt like contracting was plan B, the option they had to take because of bad luck. In their book about contractors, Steve Barley and Gideon Kunda talk about the people they interviewed who actively chose this life. I met these people too, but they weren’t the majority of the job seekers I interviewed. Because I was studying people looking for a wide range of types of jobs, instead of studying people who already had good relationships with staffing agencies that provided consultants, I tended to meet people who felt their bad luck had backed them into becoming permanent freelancers. These were people who encountered the self-as-business metaphor as a relatively new model, one they felt they actively had to learn in order to survive in today’s workplace, as opposed to the younger people I interviewed, many of whom had grown up with the self-as-business model as their primary way to understand employment.

When you think of the employment contract in a new way, you often have to revisit what counts as moral behavior, since older frameworks offer substantively different answers to questions of moral business practice. People have to decide what it means for a company to behave well under this new framework. Consider the self-as-business model. What does a good company do to help its workers enhance themselves as allied businesses? What are the limits in what a company should do? What counts as exploitation under this new model? Can businesses do things that count as exploitation or bad practices now that might not have been considered problems earlier, or not considered problems for the same reasons (and thus are regulated or resolved differently)? Businesses are certainly deeply concerned that workersҒ actions both at work and outside of work could threaten the companys brand, a new worry - but this is the tip of the iceberg. And the moral behavior of companies isnt the only issue. Can workers exploit the companies they align with now or behave badly toward them in new ways?

Yet while these two metaphors - the self-as-property and the self-as-business - encourage people to think about employment in different ways, there are still similarities in how the metaphors ask people to think about getting hired. In both cases, the metaphors are focusing on market choices and asking people to operate by a market logic. Deciding whether to rent your capacities is a slightly different question than deciding whether to enter into a business alliance with someone, but in both instances you are expected to make a decision based on the costs and benefits involved in the decision. In addition, both metaphorical contracts presume that people enter into these contracts as equals, and yet this equality doesn’t last in practice once you are hired. In most jobs, the moment you are hired, you are in a hierarchical relationship; you are taking orders from a boss. Some aspects of working have changed because of this shift in frameworks, but many aspects have stayed the same.

Avoiding Corporate Nostalgia

I talked to people who were thoughtfully ambivalent about this transition in the metaphors underlying employment. They didn’t like their current insecurity, but they pointed out that earlier workplaces weren’t ideal either. Before, people often felt trapped in jobs they disliked and confronted with office politics that were alienating and demoralizing. Like many people today, they dealt with companies in which they were constantly encountering sexism and racism. Not everyone had equal opportunities to move into the jobs they wanted or to be promoted or acknowledged for the work that they did well.

However, as anthropologist Karen Ho points out, when you have a corporate ladder that excludes certain groups of people, you also have a structure that you can potentially reform so that these groups will in the future have equal opportunities. When you have no corporate ladder, when all you have is the uncertainty of moving between companies or between freelance jobs - you no longer have a clear structure to target if you want to make a workplace a fairer environment. If there is more gender equality in the US workplace these days than there was thirty years ago, it is in part because corporate structures were stable enough and reformers stayed at companies long enough that specific business practices could be effectively targeted and reformed. Part of what has changed about workplaces today is that there has been a transformation in the kinds of solutions available to solve workplace problems.

I see what people said to me about their preference for the kinds of guarantees and rights people used to have at work as a form of critique, not a form of nostalgia. People didn’t necessarily want to return to the way things used to be. When people talked to me nostalgically about how workplaces used to function, it was often because they valued the protections they used to be able to rely on and a system they knew well enough to be able to imagine how to change it for the better.

Many people I spoke to were very unhappy with the contemporary workplace’s increasing instability. They worried a great deal about making it financially through the longer and longer dry spells of unemployment between jobs. I talked to a man who was doing reasonably well that year as a consultant, and he began reflecting on what the future would hold for his children. He didn’t want them to follow in his footsteps and become a computer programmer, because too many people like him were contingent workers. He wanted them to have their own families and reasoned: “If everybody thinks they can be laid-off in two weeks, how would they feel confident enough to be a parent and know that they’e got twenty-one years of consistent investment?”

It is not that the people I spoke to necessarily wanted older forms of work. What many wanted was stability. No matter how many times people are told to embrace being flexible, to embrace risk, in practice many of the people I spoke to did not actually want to live with the downsides of this riskier life. The United States does not have enough safety nets in place to protect you during the moments when life doesnt work out. Because you are supposed to be looking for a new job regularly over the course of a lifetime, the opportunities when you might become dramatically downwardly mobile increase. There are more possible moments in which you have to enhance your skills at surviving on much less money or even living rough.

Changing Notions of What Counts as a Good Employment Relationship

When people are thought of as businesses, significant aspects of the employment relationship change. The genre repertoire you use to get a job alters to reflect this understanding as you use resumes, interview answers, and other genres to represent yourself as a bundle of business solutions that can address the hiring company’s market-specific temporary needs. Networking has changed what it means to manage your social relationships so that you can stay employed has shifted. Some people I met are now arguing that you treat the companies you are considering joining in the same way you would treat any other business investment: in terms of the financial and career risk involved in being allied with this company.

It is not just that you evaluate jobs differently when you know that your job is temporary - deciding you can put up with some kinds of inconveniences but not others. Instead, you see the job as a short-term investment of time and labor, and the job had better pay off - perhaps by providing you with new skills, new networks, or a new way of framing your work experiences that makes you potentially more desirable for the next job. What if this new framework allows workers to have new expectations of their employers, or can safeguard workers’ interests in new ways? If you have this perspective, what are the new kinds of demands that employees could potentially make of employers?

For Tom, this new vision of self-as-business was definitely guiding how he was judging the ways companies treated him and what was appropriate behavior. I first contacted Tom because I heard through the grapevine that he refused to use LinkedIn. I was curious, as I had been doing research for seven months by that point and only came across one other person who was not using LinkedIn (and has since rejoined). We talked about his refusal, and he explained to me that LinkedIn didn’t seem to offer enough in return for his data. He clearly saw himself in an exchange relationship with LinkedIn, providing data for it to use and in return having access to the platform. Fair enough, I thought: as far as I can tell, the data scientists at LinkedIn and Facebook whom I have met see the exchange relationship in similar ways. Yet Tom decided that what LinkedIn offered wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t worth providing the company with his personal data. So I asked him about various other sites that he might use in which the exchange might be more equitable, and he lit up talking about these other sites. For Tom, because he saw himself as a business, and viewed his data as part of his assets, he was ready to see LinkedIn as offering a bad business arrangement, one he didn’t want to accept. The self-as-business framework allowed him to see the use of certain platforms as instances of participating in business alliances. Some alliances he was willing to enter into, but not all.

This wasn’t his only encounter with a potentially exploitative business arrangement. He typically worked as an independent contractor, and a company asked him to come in for a job interview. When he got there, his interviewer explained that the position was a sweat equity job - Tom wouldn’t get a salary, but rather he would get equity in the company in exchange for his labor. “Okay” he replied. “So what is your business model?” His interviewer was surprised and discomforted to be asked this. He refused to answer; employees don’t need to know the details of the company’s business model, he said. Tom felt that this was wrong; because he was being asked to be an investor in the company - admittedly with his labor instead of with money, he felt should be given the same financial details that any other investor in a company would expect before signing on. It sounded to me like Tomגs interviewer was caught between two models: wanting the possible labor arrangements now available but unwilling to adjust whom he told what. The interviewer was not willing to follow through on the implications of this new model of employment, and as a result, Tom wasnt willing to take the job. This is one way in which the self-as-business model offers a new way to talk about what counts as exploitation and as inappropriate behavior - behavior that might not have been an issue decades ago, or would have been a problem for different reasons (perhaps because a couple of decades ago, few people found sweat equity an acceptable arrangement).

But this new model also opens up the possibility that companies can have obligations to their employees that they did not have in the same way before. Since companies often dont offer stable employment, they now provide a temporary venue for people to express their passion and to enhance themselves. Can this look like an obligation that businesses have to their workers? Perhaps - businesses could take seriously what it means to provide workers with the opportunities to enhance themselves. Michael Feher argues that if people are now supposed to see themselves as human capital, there should be a renewed focus on what good investment in people looks like - regardless of whether workers stay at a single company.

SHOULD COMPANIES now help provide TRAINING for an employee’s next job? Throughout the twentieth century, companies understood that they had to provide their workers training in order for them to do their job at the company to their best of their ability. Internal training made sense both for the company’s immediate interests and for the company’s ability to retain a supply of properly trained workers over the life of the company. Now that jobs are so temporary, who is responsible for training workers is a bit more up in the air. Yet some companies are beginning to offer support for workers to train, not for the benefit of the company, but so that workers can pursue their passion, should they discover that working at that company is not their passion. Amazon, for example, in 2012 began to provide training for employees who potentially want radically different jobs. Jeff Bezo’s explained in his 2014 letter to shareholders: We pre-pay 95% of tuition for our employees to take courses for in-demand fields, such as airplane mechanic or nursing, regardless of whether the skills are relevant to a career at Amazon. The goal is to enable “choice.” It makes sense for a company to support its workers learning skills for a completely different career only under the contemporary perspective that people are businesses following their passions in temporary alliances with companies.

This model of self-as-business might give workers some new language to protest business practices that keep them from enhancing themselves or entering into as many business alliances as they would like. For example, just-in-time scheduling in practice is currently preventing retail workers from getting enough hours so that they can earn as much as they would like to in a week. This type of scheduling means that workers only find out that week how many hours they are working and when. They cant expect to have certain hours reliably free, and they need to be available whenever their employer would like them to work. Marc Doussard has found that good workers are rewarded with more hours at work. While white-collar workers might get better pay in end-of-the-year bonuses for seeming passionate, retail workers get more hours in the week. If workers make special requests to have certain hours, Doussard discovered, their managers will often punish them in response, by either giving them fewer hours to work or only assigning them to shifts they find undesirable. In practice, this means that workers have trouble holding two jobs or taking classes to improve themselves, as unpredictable shifts will inevitably conflict with each other or class times. Predictable work hours, in short, are essential for being able to plan for the future - either to make sure you are working enough hours in the week to support yourself or to educate yourself for other types of jobs. Since companies are now insisting that people imagine themselves as businesses, what would happen if workers protested when companies dont allow them to “invest in themselves” or when they are thwarted from having as many business partnerships (that is, jobs) as possible? Perhaps employees should now be able to criticize and change employers’ practices when they are prevented from being the best businesses they can be because of their employers workplace strategies.

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Posted by Elvis on 05/04/17 •
Section Bad Moon Rising • Section Revelations • Section American Solidarity • Section Privacy And Rights • Section Broadband Privacy • Section Microsoft And Windows • Section Job Hunt • Section News • Section Telecom Underclass • Section Dying America
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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 •
Section Privacy And Rights • Section Microsoft And Windows
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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.

SOURCE

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