For some time now, Microsoft has been stung by repeated virus attacks and security breaches. With more than 90% of computers around the world using Windows, Microsoft is an attractive target, an even more juicy target for many because of its history of weak security and code flaws.
Well, Microsoft has finally said that enough is enough. After largely staying out of the security market and leaving it to antivirus and firewall companies, Microsoft has finally entered the fray, releasing two great, free products - an ant-virus removal tool, and an anti-spyware application. In addition, Microsoft has taken another 'first step', beginning to validate the licences of machines running its Windows software before allowing you to download programs and patches through its website.
Spyware is a fairly new class of software, which ranges somewhere between being a full-blown virus through to being an irritating marketing program. Often installed without your direct permission, either through a website taking advantage of one of the many security holes in Internet Explorer, or as an additional 'feature' in shareware like Kazaa, Spyware monitors your browsing habits and reports them back to a central server for marketing purposes.
Often Spyware presents targeted advertisements to you, and often it installs irritating "toolbars" and other extensions to Windows which merely serve to irritate, often taking over your homepage and search page settings to send traffic to their own sites. The most notorious of these companies is the Gator Corporation, which released a helpful password application before turning over to the "dark-side" and peppering your machine with advertising cookies and generally just slowing things down with advertisements and trackers.
With the increasing use of internet banking and other highly sensitive online systems, Spyware has gone beyond the pesky to become a real security threat. There are even Spyware peddlers in the USA who have installed Spyware which intentionally slows down the infected machine, just so the scoundrels responsible can charge customers a fee to remove the Spyware they put there (and then the Spyware isn't even removed after you pay the fee). This kind of extortion has resulted in Microsoft offering a free "beta" version of an anti-spyware tool for download from their website.
We've been using the tool at Internetrix for the last week or so, and find it to be very easy to use and effective. The price is also right, and we recommend you install it and give your machine a spruce to start the year.
To read more about this program, visit http://www.microsoft.com/athome/security/spyware/software/default.mspx or to download it directly from the Microsoft Download Centre (does not require Genuine Windows Validation - see below).
So far, Microsoft has limited their competition with traditional allies like Norton and McAfee by only releasing "repair" patches. These patches are designed to help you scan and clean your machine, and so far, Microsoft has made around half a dozen available through its security website at http://www.microsoft.com/security/incident/default.mspx. These tools don't stop viruses from infecting your machine - you'll still need an anti-virus program for that - but they will help clean up the mess they leave behind.
In terms of full anti-virus programs like Norton Antivirus, Microsoft has provided more than a few strong hints that they'll be releasing an anti-virus application some time this year. Many analysts expecting it to be release in the next quarter or two, mostly as a result of Microsoft purchasing an eastern European anti-virus company late last year. If you own shared in Norton (Symantec) or McAfee, now might be the time to re-examine those portfolios, because if Microsoft decide to bundle an anti-virus program with Windows into the future, those companies may well go the way of Netscape (and the dinosaurs, but the dinosaurs took a lot longer to become extinct).
One of the more interesting findings in the process of installing the anti-spyware application was the firm insistence by Microsoft to perform Genuine Windows Validation before downloading the product. This process, which actually was quite quick and easy, installs a control onto your system that ensures you are running a legitimate copy of Windows.
There are a couple curious things about this little initiative.
Firstly, Microsoft isn't making it compulsory. They could probably get away with it, since an anti-spyware tool like AdAware will normally cost you upwards of $35 - validating your copy of Windows would be a fairly legitimate request of Microsoft in return for getting this new software for free.
Secondly, reports from discussion boards around the internet are suggesting that it does not really do much validation - people claiming to have pirated Product Keys said they were validated no questions asked.
Thirdly, and most interestingly, this new step in further validating the legitimacy of your copy of Windows has generated no media interest. In researching this story, we couldn't find a single article about "Genuine Windows Validation" in any news database - all Google carried was a few links to nerd discussion boards. The silence of the media on this issue - especially when one reflects on the amount of noise they made about Product Activation when it was included in Windows XP - raises more than a few questions.