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Pirated Microsoft Software, a Political Weapon in Russia?

Sep 12, 20104 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

Even if software is legal, pirated Microsoft software is being used like a political weapon to suppress dissent in Russia.

Choosing to run pirated software is not wise and carries heavy risks as Microsoft is fully within its rights to protect its software. Yet there seems to be a new twist in the charge to stomp out piracy. Even if the software is totally legit, complete with purchase receipts and Certificate of Authenticity stickers, people or groups that protest or publicly disagree with prevailing powers may have their privacy invaded or computers confiscated.

Microsoft is one of the industry leaders working to stop software piracy. Russia has been called a haven for pirated Microsoft programs. Earlier this year, one-quarter of Russian software outlets were selling bootleg Microsoft software. Microsoft provided evidence for about 1,000 prosecutions across Russia in 2009. The nzherald reported that “Microsoft said it was an improvement and praised authorities for what they have done so far.”

In the United States, Microsoft lists three ways to report software piracy: Method 1: E-mail Method 2: Call the Microsoft Anti-Piracy Hotline at (800) RU-LEGIT. Method 3: Fill out an online reporting form. On Microsoft’s Russian anti-piracy site, however, there is only this option: “If you want to report suspected piracy activities of a salesperson or organization-user, fill in the form.”

The New York Times published two articles over the weekend that paint Microsoft as an enemy of human rights in Russia. The first New York Times article, Russia Uses Microsoft to Suppress Dissent, tells about an environmental group, Baikal Environmental Wave, which was organizing protests against Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s decision to re-open a paper mill that had previously polluted Lake Baikal for years. Baikal Wave fell victim to Russian security authorities’ “newest tactics for quelling dissent: confiscating computers under the pretext of searching for pirated Microsoft software.”

Baikal Wave’s leaders said they showed receipts and original Microsoft packaging to prove that software was not pirated, but a “supervising officer issued a report on the spot saying that illegal software had been uncovered.” As the computers were hauled away, Baikal Wave reported that Microsoft’s “Certificate of Authenticity” stickers had been removed by the authorities.

Given the suspicions that these investigations are politically motivated, the police and prosecutors have turned to Microsoft to lend weight to their cases. In southwestern Russia, the Interior Ministry declared in an official document that its investigation of a human rights advocate for software piracy was begun “based on an application” from a lawyer for Microsoft.

In another city, Samara, the police seized computers from two opposition newspapers, with the support of a different Microsoft lawyer. “Without the participation of Microsoft, these criminal cases against human rights defenders and journalists would simply not be able to occur,” said the editor of the newspapers, Sergey Kurt-Adzhiyev.

In the second New York Times article, Microsoft Under Fire Over Lawyer’s Actions, an international anti-corruption group, Transparency International, and a Russian human rights groups, Memorial, said, “they had received reports of dozens of cases, from business owners throughout Russia who said they had been victims. In these schemes, the two groups say, corrupt officials seize computers, claim that they have found pirated Microsoft software and, in alliance with lawyers for Microsoft, demand bribes.”

The New York Times published a statement by Microsoft that included, “We have to protect our products from piracy, but we also have a commitment to respect fundamental human rights….To prevent individuals or organizations from fraudulently claiming to represent Microsoft, publish on our Russia Web site the names and certifications of authorized representatives.”

I hope Microsoft does look into this matter in Russia. This could be a highly dangerous trend, when anyone could fill out a form and report someone they don’t like or report a person with whom they don’t agree. In Russia, proving the legality of software does not seem to matter. A person or group should not need to worry about having their computers confiscated, information copied or deleted, because they chose to speak out for privacy, for freedom, or for whatever that group believes in.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.