Germany's tecChannel has launched an English-language version of its site, and has celebrated with a seriously trainspotter analysis of the interaction between Windows XP's product activation and Redmond central control. Despite (or possibly because of) Microsoft's insistence that the WPA process is completely harmless and doesn't send the company any of your personal data, the system has since its introduction been the subject of much paranoid speculation.
The Register has not entirely shared this paranoia, although we do worry about why Windows installations seem to have a general compulsion to chatter with remote systems without entirely sharing the experience with us. And we also reckon the real worry is what Microsoft might do if people really started to trust it. However, the good news for now is that tecChannel's investigation indicates that WPA's not a threat to privacy, and shows that it sends the following: Product ID, derived from the product key entered during installation; system locale (IDs you to the nearest country); product code, which is the first five digits of the product key; hardware hash, which is based on the hardware in the local computer, but which does not give Microsoft information on this computer's hardware; data from the WPA.DBL file, if one has been created by a previous installation; and the product key itself.
Microsoft is clearly getting some data from the above, but none of it is personal, and if the company were to use it for any purpose at all other than WPA policing, the fields would be pretty narrow. If the hardware hash did send information on the local configuration it would certainly be useful for development and marketing purposes, but it's been specifically designed not to do this, just to use the hardware purely as a mechanism for generating an anonymous ID (trust us on this being true, explaining how this works is a lengthy process, and anyway, we've forgotten).
Having established that WPA in its current form isn't much of a privacy threat, tecChannel comes up with some tantalising speculation. There's a possible method that could, depending on how the WPA servers deal with the hack, be used to activate on more than one computer using just one key. Also, the COM component supports, among other request types, DROPLIC. "'Dropping a license'", says tecChannel, "might be Microsoft terminology for deactivating an installation of Windows XP with the same product key on another computer." Does this mean the ability to remove XP and install it onto another computer is there in the system already?
Copious details of how tecChannel went about the analysis, together with a download of the tools used (these come with the PDF version of the article, which you have to pay for) can be had here. The German version is here. The new English site has around 30 articles up at the moment, and tecChannel tells us it intends to translate two to three articles from the German site a week for it. ®