Microsoft isn't shedding much light on a controversial portion of its new Windows privacy terms that has people concerned about the company's power to snoop on their computers. The passage in question suggests the company can prevent users from accessing unauthorized programs they've downloaded on Windows 10 computers, and people aren't thrilled about it.
On Aug. 14, Australia's PC & Tech Authority reported that an update to Microsoft's end user license agreement allows the company to "disable any games you've pirated or devices you've unlawfully hacked." In other words, if you illegally download a game or plug a counterfeit keyboard into your computer, Microsoft theoretically reserves the right to stop you from using them.
Apparently, that was the last straw for individuals already concerned about privacy on Windows 10. On Saturday, TorrentFreak reported that some private communities centered on file-sharing via torrent are beginning to ban individuals who use Microsoft's new operating system. Torrents, which allow file-sharing between individuals on a massive scale, can be used for a variety of legal and not-so-legal purposes -- but the implication here is that pirates want to avoid detection by one of the most powerful technology corporations on the planet.
As Ars Technica pointed out Monday, that's probably fine by Microsoft, which has continued to be vague when reached for comment about its terms.
The relevant text exists in the Microsoft Services Agreement, a document that governs a variety of Microsoft products from Bing to Xbox Music Pass. Here's what Microsoft actually says (emphasis ours):
Sometimes you’ll need software updates to keep using the Services. We may automatically check your version of the software and download software updates or configuration changes, including those that prevent you from accessing the Services, playing counterfeit games, or using unauthorized hardware peripheral devices. You may also be required to update the software to continue using the Services. Such updates are subject to these Terms unless other terms accompany the updates, in which case, those other terms apply. Microsoft isn’t obligated to make any updates available and we don’t guarantee that we will support the version of the system for which you licensed the software.
A spokesperson for Microsoft told The Huffington Post on Monday that while this specific agreement is new, the overall idea is the same as its ever been. Microsoft has long been able to do this.
"The Microsoft Services Agreement allows Microsoft to change or discontinue certain apps or content where we deem your security is at risk," the spokesperson said.
When HuffPost pushed back for more information, Microsoft simply reiterated the language quoted above in its Services Agreement. The spokesperson did not tell HuffPost what it means to "change or discontinue certain apps," nor did it indicate if a user is able to disable this functionality.
It's obvious why Microsoft wants to be vague: If users don't know exactly where they stand on pirated software, they're less likely to take a risk on it and might actually buy the new "Halo" or whatever.
Some users believe the agreement gives Microsoft the power to monitor any content on a computer running Windows or an Xbox console. Actually, the agreement's terms are more specific: They apply not to Windows 10 computers or Xbox consoles broadly, but to products like "Office 365 Home" and "Xbox and Windows Games published by Microsoft." The Windows 10 operating system itself has an additional layer of License Terms, which includes a clause about detecting pirated versions of Windows, but nowhere is it stated that Microsoft can detect that a program published by a third party was downloaded illegally.
All this is to say: It appears Microsoft can detect when a pirated version of its own software is being used and might disable that program, but it isn't going to comb through every file stored on your computer to figure out if you paid for it all.
That idea isn't new. People who downloaded bogus rips of Microsoft Word in my college dorm found that they couldn't use it when they shared a network with others who had identical versions of the software. Electronic Arts, a massive video game maker, uses authentication to ensure that people aren't uploading new games for the entire Internet to enjoy for free.
So, rest easy: Microsoft, like almost any service you give any personal information to in this day and age, is definitely watching you, but it probably doesn't care that you're downloading eight seasons of "The Big Bang Theory."