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MS starting to retreat on WinXP product activation

Panic setting in?

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Microsoft says it will loosen up the way Windows Product Activation (WPA) works in WinXP, and that it's going to publish details of how it works. This, funnily enough, comes just days after Tecchannel left WPA more or less a smoking ruin, and not that much longer after Fully Licensed published details of, er, how WPA works.

Windows group product manager Shawn Sanford has been telling journalists that when XP ships it'll be possible to change four pieces of hardware before reactivation is required, and that the frequency of changes will also be taken into account. So Microsoft will limit you to four changes within a given period (60 days, 90 days, six months - it's not set yet), and after that it'll reset, and you'll be allowed to make more changes.

This sounds suspiciously like a panic move that could end up being a crock. By moving from three items to four, Microsoft is increasing the leeway available for crackers, and the time element quite possibly brings messing around with your system clock into the equation. It may be the case that Microsoft has thought very deeply about this and planned the change carefully, but don't count on it. It's at least equally likely that it's saying where it intends to be, and is now setting the luckless techies the task of figuring out how to get there.

Further signs that WPA is in a severe state of flux are evident in a conversation BetaNews had with Microsoft enforcer Alan Nieman,with Microsoft enforcer Alan Nieman, who pitched WPA to The Register a while back. Nieman insists that despite Tecchannel's exploits, WinXP WPA has not been cracked. Which is actually true, it's been circumvented, or fooled. But he's on shakier ground when he suggests that the Tecchannel gags could make XP "operate unexpectedly with the user's real hardware configuration."

The only example he puts forward relates to forging the network card's MAC address. This is indeed a weakness of Tecchannel's investigation, because your PC is going to have problems if it meets another one on the network with the same MAC address. It's also something that could loom large if people start swapping wpa.dbl files around (we got mailed our first just yesterday - aren't you people thoughtful?), but it's an issue people will no doubt be aware of, and if this is the nearest thing to a mega-showstopper Alan's got, then his pitch isn't very convincing.

And then there's that proposal to lift the hardware limit to four swapouts. Tecchannel's investigation was aimed at dealing with three, so by our reckoning, if it goes to four you don't need to bother with the MAC address anyway. Maybe Shawn and Alan should talk.

Alan, however, says the Tecchannel gags won't work anyway when XP ships in October, and that the way WPA works could change right up until that point. That's pretty much what he told The Register earlier this year but now we're approaching RC2, and Microsoft is on a deadline. Fully Licensed and Tecchannel have given a pretty clear exposition of how WPA currently works, and it really does look like Microsoft would have to come up with something entirely different if it was to stand any chance of making the shipping version more secure.

Even if it has something ready to roll, getting it in and getting it tested before the rollout would be very tricky. The alternatives are making further revs to the existing system, leaving WPA vulnerable to the same kind of workarounds, or risking disaster by shoving in an under-tested system. If these people are panicking, they'll surely regret it later.

Meanwhile over at Office XP we have a claim from United Cracking Force (UCF) that they've fully cracked protection for all versions of the product, home and business. The Register has been forwarded the crack, which is convincingly large and complicated-looking, but we haven't yet verified whether or not it works. UCF says it's been tested on Italian versions of the product, so it might not turn out to be general. But as Microsoft itself concedes, WPA will always be cracked eventually, so even if this one isn't it, there'll be another along sooner or later. ®

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