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Windows 7: Calling home

16 Nov 2010   #1

Microsoft Community Contributor Award Recipient

Calling home

information   Information
Please notice this post is only my own, personal and subjective opinion. I feel this subject is important enough to clearly voice my opinion, although I do not want to start an argument. We've had them enough.

Like ET in Spielberg’s epic movie, today’s computers want to call home. Like ET, they would like to do it without us humans knowing but are forced to ask our help. Reasons are many, from validity checks and crash reports to check if software or OS needs updates installed. One common reason is various Customer Experience programs, software companies collecting information on how we users use their software and which problems we might have with it.

Most of these home calls are completely automatic once we have opted-in, given permission to an application or OS to call home when need arises. Choosing automatic updates in Windows gives it a permission to call home to Microsoft, check if Windows and other Microsoft software is up to date, and install updates when needed. Most well designed, well coded third party applications can also do the same if we have enabled automatic updates.

This issue, computers calling home, got new wind under its wings last February when Microsoft published an update to Windows 7. Update for Windows Activation Technologies (KB971033) was not only designed to check you are running a valid and correctly activated copy of Windows, but is was also coded to call home every now and then, to check that the validity status of Windows installation had not changed.

Windows themed forums were suddenly full of complaints. My home in the Interwebs, The Seven Forums got its share; thread after thread full with complaints. The consensus was that it’s user who should decide what to install, not Windows Update or Microsoft. Some of us tried to offer another approach, to tell that if you have a valid, legal setup, there’s nothing to be afraid of. A few second or so home call without user even noticing them, what’s the problem?

Although installing WAT update voluntarily as soon as it was possible, I can understand those who opposed it. Opponents were and are the same users who have for instance protested against Google’s way to call home, collect information and statistics without normal user even knowing it. These pro-privacy advocates get my sympathy and respect. The other significant opponent group is the pirates, common criminals who steal what they need, even software running on their computers and Lady Gaga singing in their iPods. These people get my antipathy and disrespect.

I have decided, long time ago, to let most of my software to call home. I have a short list of companies I have decided to trust that they are not trying to find out my personal passwords, PIN codes, internet banking credentials or my personal photos. My list includes companies like Microsoft, Norton, F-Secure, Adobe, Google, Skype, and so on. Products of these companies can always call home when they want to.

I have even taken this a bit further by joining a Customer Experience Program whenever it’s possible if the company belongs to my A-list. Why? Because I love Windows 7! Without the huge army of beta testers and users who joined Vista’s and Seven Beta's and RC's Customer Experience Programs Seven wouldn’t be what it is. The final product you and me are using is not only because those coders in Redmond, it’s also because Microsoft could get so much reports from users. And they listened. If Microsoft wants to get an occasional report from my computer, my Seven can call home whenever it (she?) wants to.

If you are running a valid Windows setup and you want to help to create an even better next generation Windows, join Microsoft Customer Experience Improvement Program. This Seven Forums tutorial tells how. More information on CEIP here.

Almost all new software have something similar. Just to give one example, here’s how to join Windows Live CEIP from Live Messenger:

Calling home-live_ceip.png

Finally, don’t automatically believe everything I say. Don’t automatically believe all counter arguments you hear. Find out yourself. Here are a few spoilers, un-truths surprisingly often heard:
  • Microsoft is not interested in what you and neighbour's wife are doing when secretly chatting
  • Microsoft does not watch you through your webcam
  • Mister Ballmer couldn’t care less if he had your Citibank's internet banking credentials
  • Multinational software companies are not interested in finding your social security number and mother’s maiden name
  • No company cares what you were doing when that photo was taken
  • Participating for instance Microsoft CEIP does not make your computer or Internet connection slower, nor does it fill your HD or Windows Registry

My System SpecsSystem Spec
16 Nov 2010   #2
Microsoft MVP


Hi Kari -

So glad to see you back in fine form.

I only care about performance and tend to want nothing extra that will put even a nick in CPU/RAM, Startup Time or bother me.

For that reason I edit msconfig>Startup list to the bone, only permitting AV and gadgets/stickies.

I find that the Adobes/Javas will find a way to notify me of Updates when they are called to run.

However I really appreciate the interactivity of Win7's Problem solving feature which will now deliver fixes when problems aren't even reported. If that were somehow enhanced by joining something then I am certainly not opposed and would help spread the word.

I am a Windows 7 guy before anything else tech-wise, because Win7 now equals superb performance and that is all I ever wanted.
My System SpecsSystem Spec
16 Nov 2010   #3

Microsoft Community Contributor Award Recipient


Greg, I hope you already know it but you are one those good guys I respect. The above was and is only one single mans personal approach, these thoughts tonight triggered because I can finally move a bit and booted my desktop first time in almost three months.I think it will be updating all night...

Anyways, I installed Live 2011 replacing Live Beta, and searching the CEIP switch to turn it on, suddenly remembered our heated WAT debate back in February. I just took a pot of coffee beside me and wrote what I was thinking.

One man, one way to do things. Another man, another way.

Peace, Man

My System SpecsSystem Spec

16 Nov 2010   #4

64-bit Windows 10 Pro

Well written Kari.

There are a lot paranoid people out there that believe everything is out to get you. While it's true you should always take proper precautions about what you let in and out of your computer, some things such as this only serves to help make Windows a better product for us all since they cannot possibly duplicate every different type of system and how Windows may run on it. Plus, the phone calls home to help make sure a pirate does not stay activated only helps to keep the costs of Windows down when we buy it and future releases.
My System SpecsSystem Spec
16 Nov 2010   #5

Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit

Great post Kari. :) I was always told to respect other peoples beliefs since I was just a boy. ( 40 some years later ) Always enjoy your post. GL :)
My System SpecsSystem Spec
16 Nov 2010   #6
James Colbert


Thanks for posting, Kari. I can't say I completely agree with everything you've said, nor do I agree with the vehemently vocal opposition. My opinion exists somewhere in between. I do tend to trust MS and some other companies, but I don't kid myself regarding two issues:

1) Corporate lust for personal data that can be used for marketing purposes.
2) The potential abuse for that same marketing data by corporations and Government.

Especially where the Government is concerned.

Society is changing by the minute, and Information Technology is, in large part, the driving force. Privacy issues are rampant. Some are a trade off for our safety (one example being TSA, hassles in flight travel, etc), but make no mistake that liberties are on the table. I don't see this getting better, on the contrary, it will grow worse. Something we must find a way to live with (within reason).

I believe that there must be some form of regulation asserted to protect 'the people', but I'm not holding my breath.

I don't foresee a solution for any of these issues. There's a big picture here that bodes not well for free society, of which 'phoning home' is an obvious component.

My System SpecsSystem Spec
16 Nov 2010   #7

Microsoft Community Contributor Award Recipient


Thanks, guys.

@James Near the end of the post, I ask people not to automatically believe what I've said, or those counter arguments. It's up to each and everyone of us to find the balance between paranoia and reality, smooth and fast running computer and security.

My balance was found when I decided I can not continue computing if I'm afraid of everything. it's a paradox that quite a many user is simultaneously overly paranoid and runs several AV and malware apps simultaneously, computing in sandbox or cloud, but on the other hand don't want those companies to find out anything.

I really have the mentioned A-list, based on my own credibility rankings. The companies on that list can install updates automatically, and I always join their CEIP or similar. I can forget them. On the other hand, I have set almost as complete auditing policy in my home network (Home Server, HTPC, 3 desktops, 3 laptops) as possible, logging about everything.

It's my balance. Like I mentioned in my response to Greg here above, I came to this subject when booting one desktop first time in almost three months and updatind Live. I started to smile when I noticed the first thing I did after I got it installed was to go to settings to turn CEIP on.
My System SpecsSystem Spec
16 Nov 2010   #8
James Colbert


Quote   Quote: Originally Posted by Kari View Post
@James Near the end of the post, I ask people not to automatically believe what I've said, or those counter arguments. It's up to each and everyone of us to find the balance between paranoia and reality, smooth and fast running computer and security.

My balance was found...
Apologies if I appeared to be criticizing your opinion. Quite the opposite. I felt comfortable adding mine because your opinion was not the domineering, my way or highway opinion so often heard these days. Your post conveyed respect for differing ideas, freeing others to respect yours. And btw, I may not have agreed with everything you said, but much of it resonates.

My System SpecsSystem Spec
17 Nov 2010   #9

Windows 7 x64 pro/ Windows 7 x86 Pro/ XP SP3 x86

Most privacy concerns and allegations of personal information collection are associated with click-stream data generated through online activities like surfing, gaming and shopping. Personally I never heard of WAT, CEIP or any security software transmitting personal data by themselves (unless one thinks the name of the computer is personal).

As for Google, I do believe it harvests personal data through search and probably even email. As long as it doesnt splash the contents of my last amorous email all over the web, its OK.

But privacy is an issue thats only going to get bigger and bigger. All "credible" companies have a reputation to sustain but the competition out there is getting meaner and boundaries are being pushed.
My System SpecsSystem Spec
17 Nov 2010   #10

Windows 7 Ultimate x64

As Kari has rightly noted, the whole "calling home" thing is a non-issue, and is mostly responsible for making Windows 7 such a great product. One only needs to look at how Windows itself has evolved over the years to realize this. All the way from Windows 95 through to Windows 7, performance and usability has improved, which will not have been possible if Microsoft could not automatically collect usage data, which has defintely been put to good use.

Case in point. When a program crashed in Windows XP, you have a chance to click "Send" or "Dont Send" crash data to Microsoft. It was extremely rare to get any kind of positive feedback from sending said crash report - maybe 1 in 100, if you got lucky. This was improved significantly with Vista and Windows 7, and now perhaps 1 in 100 "fault reports" do not get positive responses.

Even finding drivers for hardware via Microsoft Update has become better. Even though I'm old-skool and still prefer to go directly to the manufacturer, Windows Update has on countless occasions helped me to get an obscure piece of hardware functioning again after a reload.

None of this would have been possible without Windows "phone home" or without my own participation in Customer Experience Improvment Programs.
My System SpecsSystem Spec

 Calling home

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