Sunday, June 11, 2006

Q The last round of software updates from Microsoft consisted only of something called "Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications." What is that?

AThis program tries to verify that you have paid for Windows XP. It normally does this by putting together a profile of your PC's hardware, then checking a Microsoft database to see if your copy of XP hasn't already been used on a different hardware profile.

This basic process is nothing new; Microsoft already requires visitors to its Web site to pass a "Genuine Advantage" test before downloading new releases.

But recently, the company began installing Notifications automatically via Windows Update. It doesn't just scan your system once; it repeats the test every 90 days. If it cannot validate your copy of XP, it will nag you to buy a license.

Notifications also looks for new instructions from Microsoft every day. The company says these daily checks (which it plans to slow to once every 14 days) let it adjust the program's behavior if problems arise. That raises an alarming point: Notifications is pre-release software, tested without users' consent.

Worse yet, Notifications -- unlike other Microsoft updates -- cannot be uninstalled. (You can, however, erase it by restoring your PC back to its condition before Notifications' install: From the Start Menu, select All Programs, then Accessories, then System Tools, then System Restore.)

Microsoft is out of line here. The Notifications program is not the kind of critical update that should be installed automatically, much less excluded from uninstallation. And if people respond to this intrusive behavior by turning off automatic updates -- thus severing their PCs from the Microsoft patches they do need -- the already-bad state of Windows security can only get worse. -- Rob Pegoraro

Rob Pegoraro attempts to untangle computing conundrums and errant electronics each week. Send questions to The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071

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