MICROSOFT has dropped Big Brother-style plans to track down pirated copies of Windows XP, dumping elements of its Windows Genuine Advantage Notification after they ignited a firestorm of controversy.
The stealth application, introduced with auto updates in Australia in April as part of a pilot scheme, "phoned home" every time the computer was booted to confirm that the operating system was genuine.
If the software was pirated it triggered a series of irritating warnings. Now Microsoft has reacted to user anger by switching off the boot-up check.
The company has retained another tool, WGA Validation, which checks back periodically with Microsoft headquarters.
A Microsoft spokeswoman declined to speak to The Australian about the issue.
"No Microsoft spokespeople have spoken to the press regarding the update to the WGA Notifications program," she said.
US users have already filed a class action against Microsoft alleging that the tool is spyware, and Australians are fuming over the covert nature of the program.
Computer repair companies, frustrated that the changes were introduced with no advance warning, have been left to deal with angry customers who have inadvertently bought PCs with pirated operating systems.
"Most people say the validation procedures are probably fair enough, but if your software is legitimate and they come back and check it every day, well, that's why people are a bit reactive," said Ian Smith, a user angered by the WGA Notification pilot.
"I bought my software legitimately, I validated it, I go to Microsoft for updates, and if they want to check it then, that's okay. But coming back every day is too much."
The secrecy of the initiative, with the tool downloaded through the Windows auto-update feature, is what has angered users most of all. Mr Smith said the anti-piracy measure was "slipped under the radar", making it difficult to avoid and leaving most users completely unaware that their system was checking up on them.
"It ended up on my machine without me knowing about it," he said. "The fact that they didn't tell anyone was the worst part of it."
The notification scheme has caught plenty of people unaware, with computer service companies left to deal with clients who thought they had bought their software legitimately, only to find, sometimes years down the track, that it was pirated.
Mark Ahern, a specialist with Brisbane support firm computersbehavingbadly, said some of his clients who bought their hardware elsewhere had found they had been ripped off.
"Not many people realise that unless there's a sticker on the box, the chances are it's dodgy," he said. "I had three clients who had their systems flagged as non-genuine, and they had paid their money to the whitebox assembler and been stung."
Microsoft should have warned users before introducing the changes, he said. "Part of the issue has been that there was no form of warning," he said. "The end-user licence states that they can do that, but who reads it?"
Mr Ahern said the WGA program was part of a wider attempt by Microsoft to slowly but surely crack down on pirated operating systems and other software. Ultimately, even additional hardware may be locked out if the operating system was pirated.
"At the moment it's an annoying warning, but the machine still functions," he said. "My theory is that they'll gradually make it so you can't install software, and it will be necessary to have the genuine stuff."
San Diego lawyer Scott Kamber has filed a class action against Microsoft on behalf of millions of computer users, alleging the tool is spyware.
A Microsoft Australia spokeswoman refused to discuss the action. "WGA is not spyware," the company's statement says.
"It's installed with the consent of the user and seeks only to notify the user if a proper licence is not in place".