RealTime IT News

Free Vista, If Microsoft Looks Over Your Shoulder

UPDATED: Microsoft earlier this year offered to bestow high-end versions of its Windows and Office software on home users, under the condition that they let the software giant monitor their usage.

While the prospect sparked privacy concerns among a few, the dilemma of whether to participate in the trade-off may now be moot: On Tuesday, the company promptly ended the Windows Feedback Program's free-software offer, saying that it had received enough volunteers.

It's unclear how many users successfully registered for the program, which offered software including Windows Vista Ultimate, Office Ultimate 2007 and Microsoft Money Plus Premium. Officially, registration for the Windows Feedback Program continues, but without the offer of free software.

The program debuted Oct. 31, although it wasn't until Tuesday that blogs and other sites began publicizing the offer en masse.

"We offered complimentary software, while supplies lasted, to early participants who were part of the program for at least three months," a Microsoft spokesperson told InternetNews.com. "Supplies ran out on Dec. 11, 2007. However, we are still accepting program participants as part of our ongoing recruitment, though the free software offer is no longer available."

According to a company statement, the Windows Feedback Program consists of a survey-driven feedback program that users fill out approximately every two weeks, as well as an automated feedback program. The automated portion collects information on a user's PC configuration and their activity, which is reported remotely back to Microsoft.

There's the rub, at least for some users wrestling with the idea.

"I really don’t know how I feel about this program, since my privacy is worth quite a bit," one poster wrote on a user forum. "Will they be tracking websites I go to, software I use, content I post on websites?"

For the most part, the answer is no, according to a Microsoft statement.

The company said its collected information is meant to help it better understand how Windows and Office are being used to improve future versions.

Data harvested from participants' computers could include information regarding Windows settings and usage -- for example, the number of user accounts on the PC or details about computer hardware, like processor type and speed or memory capacity.

The automated data-collector also includes information such as the number of files and folders located in common directories, and which applications the owner uses to read e-mails.

However, Microsoft said in its statement that it does not record sensitive information such as passwords, personal file contents or visited Web sites. It did admit that it collects information that uniquely identifies each user's PC.

"This allows us to tell between one customer having an error 100 times and 100 customers having the same error once," the company's statement said.

One long-term Microsoft observer said it's not unusual for Microsoft to make such deals with consumers, and added that the company has a good track record for protecting users' privacy.

"It's not the first time this has been done [by Microsoft] and they accumulate very little personal data," Michael Cherry, lead analyst for operating systems at researcher Directions on Microsoft, told InternetNews.com. "It doesn't sound like it's going to be surreptitious in any way."

Updated to add comments from a Microsoft spokesperson.