I just received a NFR copy of Microsoft Office 2007 Ultimate in the mail.  Last December, I signed up for the 2008 Microsoft Windows Feedback Program Sweepstakes.  This was a three month program run out of the Windows Feedback Program.  As part of the program, I installed some software on one of my home PC’s that recorded some basic metrics such as Windows settings, hardware details, how the common document folders are being used, changes to the system, and problems that may occur.

This information was sent back to Microsoft to provide information on how our PC was being used.  In return for allowing MS to collect this data for 3 months, I was given a choice of several different products from Microsoft (Vista Ultimate, Office Ultimate, Money Plus Premium, Encarta Premium, or Streets and Trips).  I opted for Office 2007 Ultimate.  I didn’t need another copy of Office right now, but it would handy the next time I get a new machine.   Apparently the response to this offer was so huge that Microsoft closed the program to new entrants after only a day or so.

In addition to the monitoring software, I was required to answer at least one survey during that time period.  Oddly enough, I was only prompted once during the 3 month period to answer a survey.  At this point, I’m no longer obligated to run the monitoring software and I haven’t decided whether or not to uninstall it.  I’m not a big fan of monitoring software, but I’m not seeing any performance impact and I’m satisfied with the privacy issues with the data being sent back.  I know some people roaming the series of tubes were calling this spyware, but technically the WFP software isn’t spyware.  Most definitions of spware define it as software that collects data or controls a computer surreptitiously and was installed without informed concept.  I knew what it was doing and I opted in, which means it’s not spyware.  At most, Microsoft now knows how much time my kids spend at Webkinz World.

It would be nice to see what data was being sent back to the mothership, but if MS is following their own Terms of Use for this program, my privacy concerns have been satisfied.  This is in strong contrast to a program launched by Sears Holding Corp (SHC). at roughly the same time, where they wanted to install some software that would be a lot closer to the definition of spyware.  The software that Sears wanted to install was a web proxy from ComScore (never identified as such by Sears) that would track all of your web usage and sent that data to Sears.

The software used by SHC is a web proxy program supplied by Comscore.  It redirects all of your web browser activity through the Comscore software and that data can be sent to Sears.  SHC notifies the user that the user is about to install some software, but it does not go into full detail about what data is being collected and what is being sent to Sears.  At no point during the installation process or preliminary email is the software identified or it’s functionality  described.  A person with computer security experience would realize what is going on, but the average computer user would have no idea what they just installed.

With the security breaches on Sears web site earlier this year, I would be very hesitant with letting Sears have access to my personal information.  I understand why Sears would want to know what I shop for online, and I don’t mind sharing that information.   Sears has no business knowing how I pay for those items and has no business viewing my email.  Comscore’s tracking software would monitor all of that.  All privacy issues aside, that’s a horribly inefficient means of tracking online shopping.

It also looks a little funny that the guy in charge of this program, Rob Harles, was a former senior vice president at Comscore.  Comscore is the vendor for the tracking software that the SHC wants to install. Ben Edelman, assistant professor at the Harvard Business School who focuses on spyware practices, did a great write up about the SHC sofware.  He documented in clear detail (with screenshots and video) that the installation steps violate FTC guidelines.  If you Google for Sears & spyware, you’ll get close to a quarter of million hits.  That’s not what you call good publicity, but I digress.  When I participate any sort of consumer feedback program, I take a close look at what would be installed and what will be collected.  I also check to make sure that the company collecting the data is collecting the right data and will respect my privacy.  Microsoft met those concerns.