Lawsuit Labels Windows Genuine Advantage as Spyware

A California man has filed a class action lawsuit against Microsoft that charges the company with violating spyware laws with its Windows Genuine Advantage anti-piracy features.

Filed in the U.S. District Court in Seattle by Los Angeles resident Brian Johnson on June 26, the suit claims that Microsoft failed to properly disclose all the details of WGA when the technology, meant to help stop the widespread pirating of Microsoft’s Windows operating system, was upgraded in April.

While WGA was first introduced in 2004, the suit alleges that the feature became akin to a form of spyware when it was expanded to include a system that made contact with Microsoft’s servers to help the company identify people who may be using pirated versions of its market-leading operating system.

The updated version of the WGA tool included two separate components, WGA Validation and WGA Notifications, which, respectively, promised to determine whether a copy of Windows is pirated or not and alert users who Microsoft believes are running illegal copies of its software. However, WGA’s notification aspect was discovered to have been “phoning home” to Microsoft’s servers on a daily basis, touching off a wave of controversy among those who believe the feature could be used by Microsoft to keep tabs on people using its software.

On June 27, Microsoft agreed to remove the controversial notification component from WGA, announcing an updated version of the tool that is being delivered to millions of Windows XP users via Automatic Updates with one major change. Previously, a PC that had installed WGA Notifications checked a server-side configuration setting upon each log-in to determine if WGA Notifications should run or not. This daily configuration file check has been removed in the updated WGA Notifications package.

The company said WGA Validation still will check periodically to determine whether the version of Windows is genuine.

In the lawsuit, Johnson contends that Microsoft violated the terms of California and Washington spyware laws by failing to adequately inform users that the controversial elements of WGA were being installed as part of one of the software maker’s periodical security updates. Although the company could be subject to some fines if found liable on those claims, the suit primarily seeks to demand that Microsoft be barred from following a similar strategy in the future and that the company thoroughly inform users of all the details of its updates.

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Microsoft officials denied that the details of WGA Notifications were not adequately spelled out in the user licensing agreement bundled with the security update that carried the feature.

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