Imagine this. You turn on your computer and, unbeknownst to you, someone starts changing your files. Ok, so maybe it's not so tough to imagine these days with all of the viruses, trojans, and hackers out there. But what if the files were being changed by someone you trusted? Well, maybe not someone you trust, but someone that should know better.
On August 24th, this exact scenario played out. All across the globe, files in Windows XP and Vista installations were modified with no notice, and no permission. But, this can easily be explained by the Windows Automatic Update mechanism, right? Wrong. The problem here, is that these updates were installed, regardless of the Automatic Update setting. Yep, you heard that right. These files were updated, even if you did not have automatic updates set to download or install updates.
This story was first broken by Windows Secrets on September 13th. The update seems to center around the Automatic Update feature itself. Nate Clinton, Program Manager for Microsoft's Windows Update group wrote a blog entry about how and why Windows Update updates itself. Basically, the claim is that these updates are installed automatically because without them, Automatic Updates would cease to work, leaving the user with a false sense of security. He goes on to say that this type of stealth updating has been occurring since Automatic Updates was introduced. Finally, he mentions that these files are not updated if Automatic Updates are disabled.
This type of stealth updating is very disconcerting as it means that Microsoft is willing to update files without notifying the user. And while they state that Windows Update is the only thing being updated in this fashion, how can we believe them? What's to prevent them from updating other files? Are we going to find in the future that our computers are automatically updated with new forms of DRM?
While I applaud Microsoft for wanting to keep our computers safe, and trying to ensure that the user doesn't have a false sense of security, I disagree strongly with the way they are going about it. This is a very slippery slope, and can lead quickly into questionably legal territory. Should Microsoft have the right to change files on my computer without permission? Have they received permission already because I am using the update software? Unfortunately, there are no clear cut answers to these questions.
It'll be interesting to see what happens from here as this has become somewhat of a public issue. Will Microsoft become more forthcoming with these updates, or will they proceed with stealth installations? Regardless, I don't expect to see much of a reprisal because of this issue. It's unfortunate, but for the most part, I don't think most users actually care about issues such as this. In fact, most of them probably aren't aware. Thankfully for those of us that do care, there are people out there keeping an eye out for issues like this.