Microsoft to claim a right to rummage around in your Windows 8 hard drive

Windows Store comes with terms that allow Microsoft to kill, delete or change downloaded apps

Microsoft is stealing ideas and a sense of entitlement from the overly-entitled-feeling smartphone application market to improve its own control over products customers thought they obtained legally.

One of the many things most people don't realize about the apps they download to smartphones is that many come with kill switches – commands that can be sent across carrier networks to permanently deactivate a piece of software that turns out to be buggy, infested with malware, insecure or insufficiently invasive of the user's privacy.

(Having these things covertly built into paid apps would seem like a prime indication you bought a piece of weaselware, if the whole Android and iOS markets weren't already thick with apps seeded with spyware abilities so extensive they would make Big Brother weep with envy.)

Microsoft, which has never shied away from using someone else's ideas if they offered the chance to sell more software, announced it will build a similar kill switch into apps bought from its upcoming apps store to run on Windows 8 devices.

In the terms of use for the Windows Store, scheduled to go live in February, Microsoft included a warning that also serves as a way to claim rights over someone else's computer that, in the real world, would be similar to giving an employer who pays by direct-deposit the right to withdraw as much as it wants from your bank account based on its objection to money you got from someone else.

"In cases where your security is at risk, or where we're required to do so for legal reasons, you may not be able to run apps or access content that you previously acquired or purchased a license for…

"In cases where we remove a paid app from your Windows 8 Beta device not at your direction, we may refund to you the amount you paid for the license." – Terms of Use, Windows Store, as quoted in Computerworld

I'm glad Microsoft is thinking ahead to what it would do if apps distributed through the Windows Store turned out to be buggy or infested with Malware or in some way unfriendly to Microsoft.

It obviously learned a lesson from the malware distribution center that took over much of Google's Android App Store at one point.

It's not Microsoft's first effort to get a look inside its customers' hard drives.

The spyware-ish Windows Genuine Advantage was a revolutionarily intrusive measure when it was first introduced in 2006 to verify Windows licenses before allowing customers to download Service Packs and other important updates).

One analyst quoted by Computerworld thinks Microsoft's process of filtering and monitoring apps in the Windows Store will be rigorous enough to keep out most of the malware and that it will follow accepted procedures to shut off or uninstall apps from the hard drives of customers.

I would hope that's true.

The Terms Microsoft has posted right now don't require that, however, so it would be free to do as it likes.

Even if Microsoft handles that power responsibly, allowing it sets a precedent that will have every other software vendor building in kill switches, PC-inventory tools, license-monitoring and verification services and half a dozen other types of proper-sounding but still intrusive commercial spyware.

Even assuming Microsoft does responsibly use the power to rummage around the hard drive of customers at will, the ability would present an awful temptation to use it to find out what competing products a customer is running, to "optimize" Windows apps or services by shutting down those of other vendors, or just monitor customer PCs to make sure they don't load any Microsoft products illegally.

Microsoft is always quick to justify any such intrusion as a way to prevent piracy, preserve its copyright and collect anonymous usage data to help its products run more effectively. It runs report-back functions in Microsoft Security Essentials, Office, Windows XP, Vista and 7, all of which are designed tor report errors and regular usage statistics. It's possible, though often awkward, to opt out of these, though most go back on by default after some patches or updates or when some random corruption forces the user to reinstall the whole app or suite.

Still, while I'm sure we all appreciate the priority Microsoft puts on making its products run effectively, it doesn’t seem as if it's the responsibility of the customer to let a vendor spy on every little thing he or she does simply to make sure one set of programs or subroutines doesn't conflict with another.

From most vendors that intrusion would seem creepy and presumptuous. From Microsoft it seems like a demand for fealty and submission to its priorities for your computer.

Unfortunately, the priorities of any vendor are pretty close to the polar opposite of those held by any customer. Customers have no interest in buying a continuing string of updates, paying for support they don't need, paying for products that only fail to interfere with other applications if they both came from the same vendor, or regular, unjustified friskings to verify we haven't become pirates or criminals since the last digital equivalent of a strip search.

Thanks for planning ahead for potential problems from third-party software we may download from the Windows Store, Microsoft.

If it comes down to a choice between getting an app from the Windows Store and not having it at all, I'll go with the one that doesn't encourage what has become a long line of software vendors wanting unrestricted, unannounced access to my hard drive.

There are plenty of people around who are after the same thing but – unlike Microsoft or other vendors whose indefensible Terms of Service pretend to justify uninvited intrusions – those people don't pretend they're doing it for my benefit, and tend to go to jail when they're caught.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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