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Only hours after Microsoft was nobbled in the European marketplace for being involved in antitrust behaviour, it has been revealed that the company is secretly changing the configurations to PCs running the Windows operating system.

According to a story in Bill Gates local newspaper the Seattle Intelligencer, Microsoft says it’s reconsidering how it updates a key piece of Windows plumbing after Windows Secrets, a US newsletter, reported that the company delivered fixes over the Internet silently — not telling PC users even when they had set the operating system to be notified.

The article, in the latest edition of the “Windows Secrets” newsletter, raises questions about the practice, and how it might be used later.

“If Microsoft can change things on your PC, after you’ve set it up to only take changes when you want them, that gives people a lot of fear for what might happen to their PCs in the future,” said Brian Livingston, the newsletter’s editorial director.

Only last week SmartHouse noticed that two updates had been made to PCs running the Vista windows operating system. On two PCs several Adobe fonts had been removed from the system resulting in 4Square Media having to re-load the fonts. On another occasion Google settings were nobbled and when we came to re-set the Google software as our prefered search settings, we three times had to re-download the software as each time the Vista system disabled it.

 

Microsoft representatives sought to explain and defend the practice, describing it as a unique situation. But the company also acknowledged that it is now looking at ways to make the process more transparent.

The company “should have been clearer in our explanation of this process earlier in the game,” wrote Nick White, a Windows product manager, in a post on the Windows Vista blog.

The dust-up involves the Update program, which checks for and downloads Windows fixes over the Internet. Users can set the program to download and install those fixes automatically, or they can exercise more control by setting it to alert them and let them choose whether to download or install Windows patches when they’re available.

In the case uncovered by Windows Secrets, the fixes were downloaded and installed automatically, without notification, even in cases where users sought to exercise that greater control.

The twist is that the “silent” updates in question were for the Windows Update program itself.

 

That made these updates different from other types, contended Microsoft’s Nate Clinton, Windows Update program manager, in an online post. Because they involved the Windows Update program, he wrote that it was important to download and install the updates automatically, even if users had opted for more control over the process.

“Had we failed to update the service automatically, users would not have been able to successfully check for updates and, in turn, users would not have had updates installed automatically or received expected notifications,” Clinton wrote.

But the story, by Windows Secrets associate editor Scott Dunn, said Windows had alerted users about what was happening in a similar situation in the past.

“These files are by no means viruses, and Microsoft appears to have no malicious intent in patching them,” Dunn wrote in the story. “However, writing files to a user’s PC without notice … is behaviour that’s usually associated with hacker Web sites. The question being raised in discussion forums is, ‘Why is Microsoft operating in this way?’ “

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