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New "key" mandatory in Windows for updates

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Get ready to register with Microsoft if you want to update your Windows operating system.

In a shift toward greater monitoring of personal computer systems and potentially less copying of software, Microsoft will require users to let the company place a software "key" on their systems if they want the free, regular system updates it provides.

Privacy advocates are concerned, but Microsoft said the system is anonymous and won't be used for anything other than verifying the operating systems' authenticity.

Called "Windows Genuine Advantage," the system is designed to limit the spread of copied software, a widespread practice that has grated on co-founder Bill Gates since the earliest days of personal computing.

Today, Microsoft claims to lose billions in sales to counterfeiting and works with police to aggressively pursue bootleggers.

Since it began testing the system last September, more than 40 million users have voluntarily registered.

Starting today, registration is mandatory for anyone seeking updates, such as the updated versions of its media player or graphics program, glitch fixes and other features the company may issue 10 or more times a year. It works with Windows XP and 2000.

Older systems don't require validation for updates.

Security updates are not part of the system. They can still be downloaded free without the validation process.

The system works by identifying unique characteristics of a system and implanting a software key that can be read by Microsoft when updates are requested. The only way to remove the key is to reformat the hard drive, said David Lazar, director of Genuine Windows.

The key won't be used to identify individual users, only individual systems, he said.

"I would go back to our privacy policy, which says we have no knowledge of the identity of the users, so a user shouldn't be concerned about the use of that key," he said.

But privacy advocates aren't sure. Chris Hoofnagle, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center's San Francisco office, is waiting for a technical analysis to gauge the system's invasiveness.

"It's a march onto trusted computing, where basically the user is not trusted anymore."

Hoofnagle is concerned Microsoft may share its user database with the government, or limit usage somehow.

The system is also part of a broader effort to add copy-protection technologies to more media and devices, he said.

"The ultimate goal of companies like Microsoft is to have it in the personal computer, so the operating system can effect a high level of control over the user, including things like being able to enforce policies against forwarding e-mail," he said.

To make the program more palatable, registering customers will receive discounts for other software products and services, as well as a free downloadable photo-editing program, screensaver, card game and video tutorials.

The system isn't foolproof, however. A researcher in Bangalore, India, cracked it last month, developing a way to generate keys for illegal copies of Windows, according to Indian news site Rediff.com.

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The assumption is not if Microsoft will use the information in a manner inconsistent with company policies, but rather will someone abuse that information. Maybe if they didn't charge $100, or $200 for copies, piracy wouldn't be so rampant. I have a legit copy myself, but there was a time when I was stuck with that pos Me and no funds to get XP. Thanks Bill.

Frankly, I'm glad someone cracked it. I wonder if OS X or whatever they end up calling it, will be the same when it is released for PCs. Hope not.

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