SEATTLE -- When Microsoft Corp. said it planned to begin checking for pirated copies of its Windows operating system using the method it set up to send security fixes, even some traditional critics could sympathize.
After all, piracy of Microsoft's flagship products remains a huge, costly problem, particularly in developing countries such as China and Russia. The Business Software Alliance estimates that 35 percent of software installed on PCs worldwide is pirated.
Nevertheless, 18 months after announcing the Windows Genuine Advantage piracy check, Microsoft faces controversy and backlash, including two lawsuits.
``They have a right to say, `If you want patches from Microsoft, you know, you should let us make sure you're not running a pirated copy of Windows,' " said Gartner analyst John Pescatore. But ``with the Windows Genuine Advantage tool, I think, they tried to go a little too far," he said.
Microsoft introduced the piracy check in mid-2005 as a condition for downloading security fixes and other software from its website. Now the antipiracy check is also being sent to customers whose computers receive security updates automatically.
For now, users can take extra steps to opt out of the piracy check. But Microsoft strongly encourages people to run it, calling it a ``high priority update," and says the check might become mandatory at some point.
Once installed, the program checks whether it believes the user's version of Windows is legitimate. It gathers information such as the computer's manufacturer, hard drive serial number, and Windows product identification.
Microsoft still offers important security fixes, even if the company believes the version of Windows is pirated, although those users can't get nonsecurity downloads. Those users also receive a barrage of notices that they are running an illegal copy of Windows.
Some people became alarmed when they discovered that the software also was performing a daily check-in with the company. Microsoft said it was a safety measure designed to let the company shut the program down quickly if something went wrong. But critics saw it as a breach of privacy and trust.
``It feels very much like a digital trespass -- you know, someone is getting access to your system without your consent," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Microsoft conceded that it should have told users it was making a daily connection. It has since discontinued the daily check and revised its disclosures. The system will, however, continue to occasionally check in with Microsoft to make sure it still believes a person's software is legitimate.
Although many sympathized with Microsoft's antipiracy efforts, others questioned the entire program.
``To use the security mechanism to install marketing software that is designed to increase Microsoft's revenue but actually interferes with some people's use of their PCs is a real breach of faith with customers," said Brian Livingston, editor of Windows Secrets, a newsletter and website.
He thinks the episode will have a long-term, negative effect on how well people regard the software maker.
Microsoft faces two federal lawsuits over the software, both of which accuse the company of violating laws that seek to combat spyware. The lawsuits seek class-action status.
Microsoft spokesman Jim Desler insists the piracy check is not spyware. ``These lawsuits are without merit and they really distort the objective of our antipiracy program," he said.