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Cracks appear for latest WinXP protection tech

They really, really can't be using the proper stuff yet. Can they?

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Was Microsoft only kidding about Product Activation, or is the company just playing its cards close to its chest? As previously advertised, the latest external build of WinXP, 2446, introduced compulsory Product Activation with no official workaround, but within 24 hours of the build leaking out onto the Web, cracks for the protection system were being published.

The methods used so far to secure the Product Activation process in the beta program have been, frankly, trivial, and it would appear that 2446 includes only a minor escalation. This isn't even beta 2 of course, far less gold code, but if Microsoft wishes to stop more than the proverbial child of five with the shipping product it must surely have something entirely different and entirely more fiendish in the locker.

But given the constraints, that's a tricky one, and there's one glaring reason why the effectiveness of the protection in XP may not matter anyway. Microsoft proposes to include Product Activation in consumer versions of the product, but not in corporate versions. In the latter case companies buying multiple copies of XP will have to go through an unlock process once, but then will be able to install as many copies as they like. Inevitably copies of the corporate version and any associated codes will provide a source for pirated software. It's difficult to see how this represents even a slight improvement over the current situation, from Microsoft's point of view.

Tackling commercial piracy is not however the stated intent of Product Activation - casual copying is the target, according to Microsoft. But this is where you have to start scratching your head about the technology, and thinking about the constraints - which are largely self-imposed.

Right now the protection has just a couple of levels. First of all there's the product key issued with the software. It's long, but it's no defence unless Microsoft does something it has said it won't do with the shipping version. There is, as the company told The Register a while back, no phone home, and activation will be a single, once only process. So right now there are quite possibly several thousand people using the same three product keys on leaked copies of XP beta code, and when the full product ships "casual" copiers (playground swaps, multiple installation among friends etc) will no doubt just use the single key that came with the product they're copying. You could stop that if the software checked in regularly with a central database, but Microsoft says it's not going to do that.

Activation itself is the next level of defence. XP is intended to generate a code from the local hardware configuration, and this code is then validated over the Internet or by phone, with the customer then being given the real unlock key. In principle it's a pretty effective system that ties a single copy of the software to a single machine, but it obviously only works like that if you have to go through the Product Activation Process. Which right now, you don't.

Although 2446 escalates the level of protection very slightly, avoiding the process still seems to be a matter of flipping around a couple of registry switches, disabling a wizard and killing off a system file (that's the new bit in 2446). We know how you do this, Microsoft knows how you do it, it's not rocket science, and it surely can't be what's going to ship with the gold code.

But what will? Product Activation can no doubt be made harder to disable, but impossible is a different matter. And so long as it's a one-off process with no phone home system built in, the obvious route of using the Internet to check for duplicate IDs is closed to Microsoft. Of course if it all does fail, next time around maybe Redmond will be a little less scrupulous... ®

Related stories:
New MS protection tech did go live in latest WinXP beta
MS gears up for public WinXP beta with interim external build
MS opens up on Whistler copy protection

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