Friday, 12 February 2010 14:55

WAT's that - a legit Windows 7 on my PC, or counterfeit?

Microsoft is preparing to release a 'voluntarily' update to its Windows Activation Technologies (WAT) for Windows 7 users to detect 'more than 70 known and potentially dangerous activation exploits which attempt to bypass or compromise your PC's security', something set to give pirates the shivers and Linux lovers a Windows-bashing field day.

If you've been pirating copies of Windows 7 and deploying activation evading technologies to fool Win 7 into running on your PC and successfully downloading Windows updates, your time as a cyber Long John Silver may soon be over.

That's because Microsoft has updated its 'Windows Activation Technologies' (WAT) for Windows 7, preparing to roll out a new version to users that want to download it, but before we get to the details, here's a little abridged history.

With piracy of Microsoft's products still rampant and Microsoft founder Bill Gates once even having credited piracy with making his products so popular that Microsoft would be able to cash in on those pirate users in the future, the inevitable move towards making some of those pirates pay began in earnest with Microsoft's 'Windows Genuine Advantage' (WGA) program, with WGA the precursor to WAT.

This extended the practice of forcing users to enter in a CD key by checking the bona-fides of that key with Microsoft's online activation servers, which naturally caused pirates to simply find ways to circumvent the activation, or make copies of Windows think they were properly activated.

There was also concern that some properly activates copies of Windows would eventually be subject to some kind of Microsoft stuff-up where a previously activated copy would suddenly be marked as 'counterfeit'.

Naturally, such stuff ups occurred, enraging some users, while causing Mac and Linux fans to snigger, but in the main, it stopped most consumers from simply lending copies of their installation discs to their mates, something that grew Microsoft's user base but deprived them of cash.

Eventually, Microsoft decided to eliminate the term 'Windows Genuine Advantage', seeing as it was really more annoying than 'genuine', even though the 'genuine' term related to being in possession of a 'genuine' copy of a version of Windows.

So it renamed WGA into WAT instead, but ultimately, it's the same thing: a way for Microsoft to stop casual piracy, turn up the wattage on earning money from retail sales, and discovering illegally activated and pirated copies of Windows which then enter a 'nag' mode to get 'counterfeit' Windows users to pay up and go legit.

Given that Windows 7 has been out for a while now, and given that pirates have found various ways to bypass the Win 7 activation process, continuing work on the WAT technology comes as no surprise - and now Microsoft has an update.

Details on page 2, please read on!

Over at Microsoft's MSDN blog, Microsoft Australia's 'Windows Consumer Lead, Jeff Putt, gives us all the lowdown on where WAT's at, and what it means for Windows 7 users.

Putt starts off with a legitimate scare tactic, asking if you realise that 'one in four web sites offering counterfeit software attempt to install unwanted or malicious code upon downloading?'

Putt then says that 'Now more than ever, it's important to protect yourself AND your PC', and while hardened pirates will want to protect their PCs from Microsoft instead, it's still good advice - especially for Windows users.

Next up we learn that, in the coming days, the Windows Activation Technologies (WAT) built into Windows 7 can be upgraded with a new update, one which will 'detect more than 70 known and potentially dangerous activation exploits, which attempt to bypass or compromise your PC's security.'

Windows 7 users who have automatic updates switched on will apparently, from what I can tell from the blog post, have the update automatically applied, with Putt's post putting it to us that Microsoft will be 'releasing the download via Windows Update to customers who have elected to receive updates automatically'. 

Those who just can't wait to install Microsoft's latest WAT update can voluntarily download it starting February 16 via Microsoft's website, and in return, you'll be altered to the 'authenticity of your operating system'. If your updates aren't automatic, Microsoft says that 'later this month, the update will also be offered through Windows Update as an 'Important' update.'

If you're discovered to have counterfeit software installed (or in the event of another WAT stuff up), Putt says that 'you will be offered recommendations to help you get genuine software if it's found that your system is using non-genuine software', and presumably a future apology if any future WATtacks on genuine systems go skewiff, snafubar or PEBMAC, which is the newly coined acronym for 'problem exists between Microsoft and computer'.

If visiting Microsoft's website isn't possible on February 16, you'll also have the opportunity to ' download the update from the Microsoft download Centre beginning February 17, 2010'.

As Putt notes, 'It is important to know that the Update is voluntary - so it's up to you if you want to download or not. Should you download the update and your system is found to be non-genuine, you will see no reduced functionality [emphasis in original] in your copy of Windows - your applications will continue to work as expected and your access to the Internet, data and Windows security updates will remain unchanged.'

So, why does Microsoft say you should download the update, and what are 'the risks of obtaining and using pirated software'?

Details on page 3'¦ please read on!

So, why should you download the update?

Putt says this is because 'many people aren't aware that they could be at risk for being sold non-genuine software or don't realise the dangers associated with purchasing from a counterfeit software site. It might have been pre-loaded on your PC before you purchased it, or you might have purchased a 'cheap version' thinking that you got a special.'

Examining what it is 'you were really sold', Putt quotes a recent IDC research report, entitled 'The Risks of Obtaining and Using Pirated Software', which 'shows that one in four websites offering counterfeit software attempted to install unwanted or malicious code upon downloading, and the rate is rising. Media Surveillance, an anti-piracy solutions company based in Germany, recently downloaded more than five hundred pirated copies of Windows 7 (and Windows activation exploits) and found that 32 percent contained malicious code. These are very disturbing figures - especially when considering that a small minority of PC resellers may be using these downloads to claim that the PCs they sell include genuine Windows.'

While those freedom loving Linux users will claim that Windows itself if the real 'malicious code', piracy is a real problem for users that have purchased computers believing their copy of Windows 7 is legitimate. Malicious code in Windows from pirated sources is also very dangerous because it can bypass existing security software, although Microsoft's new WAT now stands ready to battle that threat.

So, how will the WAT update work? Putt explains that: 'The WAT update will trigger periodic validations (initially every 90 days and in the case of systems with tampered, disabled, or missing licensing files every seven days) and will detect known and potentially dangerous activation exploits.'

The explanation continues: 'Activation exploits are sometimes called 'hacks', and they attempt to bypass or compromise Windows security. The update will determine whether the Windows 7 software installed on your PC is genuine and will better protect your PC by making sure that the integrity of key licensing components remains intact.'

Naturally, now that Microsoft has introduced new WAT technologies, the pirates will simply find new ways to defeat them, but in the short term, a lot of PCs running pirate versions of Windows 7 will be identified on a worldwide basis, potentially bringing in a lot of money from users with counterfeit copies, while helping Microsoft track down PC stores that sell counterfeit Windows software.

So, will all Windows 7 versions be covered and how can you tell if a PC you're about to buy has genuine Windows 7 installed?

Please read on to page 4.

Putt's blog post says that 'The Update is designed to run on all editions of Windows 7, although it will be first distributed to the Home Premium, Professional, Ultimate and Enterprise editions.'

What if you want to know if a copy of Windows 7 you're about to buy with a new PC is 'genuine'?

Putt notes that 'buyers of new PCs should always check for the Certificate of Authenticity (COA) to verify that the PC they are purchasing contains only genuine Windows. A quick visit to our How to Tell website tells buyers what a genuine COA should look like.'

The How To Tell site also informs users on what genuine CDs and DVDs of genuine Microsoft software will look like.

Most users out there who have purchased a new computer from a reputable store are unlikely to notice anything different, but anyone with a pirated copy of Windows who has wittingly or unwittingly download WAT will quickly find out how hot the heat from WAT will be.

Mac and Linux users will be pleased to know they'll be unaffected by this latest anti-piracy Microsoft update.

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

Alex Zaharov-Reutt is iTWire's Technology Editor is one of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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