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Windows Genuine Advantage: A Ticking Time Bomb?

There has been a lot of chatter recently over some of the newer activation and validation schemes that Microsoft may or may not implement with its new Windows Vista operating system.

Nobody at Microsoft is saying much, and a lot of bloggers and pundits are all over these alleged schemes, calling them bad news for users.

I personally see these developments as bad news for Microsoft, especially if what I'm about to outline actually happens.

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As we all know, Microsoft implemented full-throttle activation in Windows XP and managed to dominate the market, with very few complaints from users.

Windows XP was generally liberal in the way it dealt with hardware swaps and upgrades.

Even when it delivered an activation error — when you added some major system peripheral or rejiggered the system — you could usually get it back up and running with a simple call to the activation center.

I did this a couple of times and although it took a little time, it always seemed to work.

I personally do not see why this wouldn't continue to work with Vista. So what's different?

The difference is that Microsoft wants to put yet another layer into the mix, and this layer — Windows Genuine Advantage — could become a problem if the layer itself is ever targeted by a virus or Trojan horse.

In other words, what happens if Windows Genuine Advantage is itself corrupted?

Windows Genuine Advantage is the layer we really do not need. There is no reason, as far as I can tell, to add a watchdog program to Windows to make sure users are not running bootleg versions of the OS. There has to be a better way.

Now I can understand how this happened. It happened in a committee inside Microsoft when someone came up with the brilliant idea of essentially creating a virtual policeman to watch over the operating system to make sure it has the right "papers."

This is an interesting idea, but who watches and authenticates the policeman?

I suspect the policeman will actually be hacked before the OS. It might actually be easier for the pirates to create a fake cop that constantly authenticates fake versions of Vista than it will be to create a Vista imitation that can pretend to be a legitimate version.

There is some irony to that idea. But that's none of my concern.

I'm more worried about some joker creating a virus or exploit that turns the good cop into a bad cop, and I can only imagine the destruction and hassle that will ensue.

First of all, this policeman program is also a traffic cop. Aside from having the potential ability to turn your operating system off so that it cannot work at all, it is the program that allows your OS to be upgraded.

There will be no patches for an exploit against the program that turns off upgrades.

Once a virus that makes the cop refuse to authenticate Vista hits the Net, then how can the problem be fixed? By definition and the way I see it, this will be an impossibility.

This concept of hacking the policeman is not new. If you recall some of the viruses from a few years back, many of them would first attack antivirus software to render it useless.

I do not even want to think of the consequences of Vista turning itself off in enterprise situations such as airline reservations or a hospital full of patients on life support.

A serious collapse of the authentication network that could not be fixed without sending out discs or one-by-one-downloads will end up in the courts, and you can be certain that the shrink-wrap license agreement that holds Microsoft blameless will be tossed out as bogus.

Of course Vista isn't shipping yet, and a lot of final decisions have not been made. But Windows Genuine Advantage has already been test-marketed on Windows XP users.

Why anyone running Win XP would ever install it is somewhat mysterious, but let's face it, most people are trusting, gullible and naïve when it comes to big corporations pushing them around.

All I can say is that Microsoft's strategy could become a tremendous nightmare if the black-hat brigades target the Windows Genuine Advantage scheme with an answer of their own.

Stay tuned. It could get ugly.

Discuss this article in the forums.

Go off-topic with John C. Dvorak.

Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.

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