Microsoft using Office’s AutoUpdate feature to check licensing

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MS Genuine Software LogoTurns out surreptitious Microsoft updates are no longer a PC-only problem. Microsoft’s Genuine Advantage program is designed to check that copies of Windows as well as Windows-based software (mainly Office) are properly licensed. The stated goal of this program is to “… giv[e] you full capabilities, access to all the latest updates, and confidence that you are getting the experience you expect.” (Source: MS Genuine Advantage Program Information). Until now, the nagging, pop-up reminders, and reduced functionality that accompany pirated Windows software have been exclusive to the PC realm. Unfortunately, with Office 2008, this appears to have changed.

Here is the scenario: An upgrade from an old PowerBook G4 to a new MacBook Pro and iMac setup (more power on the desktop, plus the convenience of a portable when on the road). According to the EULA for Office for Mac 2008, the program may be installed on up to two computers at a time: one desktop and one portable. In the process of migrating files, it is always prudent to check that important files made the transition intact. Unfortunately, this involved a three-way comparison—on the PowerBook, MacBook Pro and iMac—and here the trouble started.

Attempting to open an Excel file on all three computers produced the following (never-before-seen) error message:

Office Excel Warning Message

The set-up includes Little Snitch, a killer app for monitoring/blocking incoming and outgoing network traffic (and well worth the $30 price tag). By default, all applications are denied access unless granted it, including Excel, so it was impossible that Excel had phoned home to check on licensing. A quick dig through Little Snitch’s network monitor showed no other Office apps were phoning home either, so the search was expanded to include background daemons and helper applications. The only app that could connect to the internet was the Microsoft AU Daemon (the program that checks for updates to your Office software):

Little Snitch Filter Rule - Allow

Sure enough, changing the permission from Allow Connections to Deny Connections solved the problem:

Little Snitch Filter Rule - Deny

A quick readthrough of the Office for Mac website, as well as the EULA of the entire Office suite, showed no documentation that the AutoUpdate program performed licensing checks for software. Out of curiosity, the same setup was replicated using the old Office for Mac 2004, which had the same two-computer license limit. Sure enough, installing on all three computers did not cause the same error message to appear, even with the Microsoft AU Daemon allowed outgoing connections. Looks like involuntary use of AutoUpdate features is no longer the domain of hapless PC users.

How long before Microsoft decides to force updates on Mac users, the way Windows users have received system updates without their knowledge (in many cases crippling their computers or leading to data loss)? Microsoft is, of course, right to check that their programs are properly licensed, but they were burned with the cloak-and-dagger manner surrounding the Windows Genuine Advantage. Is it impossible to learn from those mistakes, and be a little forthcoming with information about how and why a program will be verified?

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