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Microsoft denies Windows 8 app spying via SmartScreen

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Microsoft has moved to quell fears that Windows 8 is building up a detailed record of all applications stored on client machines via its SmartScreen application.

An analysis by security researcher Nadim Kobeissi noticed a potential privacy violation in Windows 8's SmartScreen system, which checks applications that the user wants to install against a database of known dodgy code and warns the user if Redmond's records suggest there may be a problem.

"The big problem is that Windows 8 is configured to immediately tell Microsoft about every app you download and install," Kobeissi wrote. "This is a very serious privacy problem, specifically because Microsoft is the central point of authority and data collection/retention here and therefore becomes vulnerable to being served judicial subpoenas or National Security Letters intended to monitor targeted users."

To make matters worse, the install logs are sent to Microsoft and can be snooped by third-parties, the researcher claims, since the mechanism supports the SSLv2 protocol which is known to be breakable. While it's possible to turn off SmartScreen, it's not easy, and the OS will remind you periodically to turn it back on.

The thought of Microsoft getting a log of every application stored on a client system predictably got some in the IT community's hackles up. Stories like this elicit fears in some quarters that all the data is fed back to a secret room in Redmond, where it is examined by the FBI, RIAA, or the Rand Corporation, in conjunction with the saucer people, under the supervision of the reverse vampires.

"We can confirm that we are not building a historical database of program and user IP data," a spokesperson told El Reg. "Like all online services, IP addresses are necessary to connect to our service, but we periodically delete them from our logs. As our privacy statements indicate, we take steps to protect our users’ privacy on the backend. We don’t use this data to identify, contact or target advertising to our users and we don’t share it with third parties."

As for concerns over the leakage of material via SSLv2.0, Microsoft said that it will not use this protocol with Windows 8 and that SmartScreen does not support that version. Kobeissi notes that 14 hours after he posted about the issue a new scan of the servers showed no SSlv2 support, although he stands by his original findings.

Lest you think that Kobeissi is some tinfoil-hat type, he is a respected security researcher in his field. Kobeissi, a Canadian of Lebanese extraction, invented the Cryptocat encrypted chat application and is a strong anti-censorship campaigner.

But while in this case it appears that Microsoft is in the clear, there's still room for improvement. Currently the SmartScreen system does use application information stored at Redmond to validate local apps, hence the information is collected. But Kobeissi points out that the need for this could be eliminated if such data was stored locally on the client end and updated regularly. ®

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