Privacy problems persist in latest Windows Messenger 2011 beta

Earlier versions of Messenger played fast and loose with your privacy. The new Live Messenger 2011, currently in beta, suffers from some of the same defects

Microsoft's cavalier attitude toward privacy in the Windows Live Essentials applications has drawn the ire of many. Several of your users are probably downloading and trying the new beta versions of Windows Live Messenger, Photo Gallery, Mail, Live Sync, and Writer, collectively known as the Windows Live Essentials 2011 beta.

They might expect that the new privacy setting screen -- prominently offering an option to keep their information private -- would protect them from Microsoft's more egregious privacy-busting proclivities. Think again. While some privacy protections have changed and improved, others remain the same. Warn your users.

[ Also on InfoWorld: See J. Peter Bruzzese's review of Windows Live Essentials in his Enterprise Windows blog, Windows Live Essentials: Does it hit or miss the mark? ]

Consider this sobering scenario: You and your boss use Windows Live Messenger (or MSN Messenger or Windows Messenger) to keep in touch. One day, you get a job offer from Snidely Whiplash at a competing company across town. You and Snidely have a brief IM conversation, using Messenger. Innocent and private, yes? Well, no.

The next time your boss logs into Hotmail -- not Messenger, mind you, but Hotmail -- your boss glances at the initial Hotmail screen and sees that you and Snidely have become "friends." That's what the notice says: "Woody Leonhard and Snidely Whiplash are now friends."

Hard to believe, but that's how Microsoft's Messenger invitation system works. It works that way with the older version of Messenger (so-called Wave 3). It works that way with the new Wave 4 beta version of Messenger 2011, too.

With the current Wave 3 version of Messenger, when you extend an invitation to someone, asking them to participate in a Messenger conversation, Messenger advises that "When you add someone to Messenger, they also become part of your network on Windows Live." When the person you invite to participate in an IM conversation accepts your invitation, using the Wave 3 version of Messenger, he or she clicks Yes on a dialog box that says, "Do you want to add this person to Messenger? Messenger contacts are part of your network on Windows Live."

Microsoft takes that as sufficient permission to start broadcasting the fact that you and the invitee have become "friends," and your new friendship appears on the Hotmail Today screen of all of your other "friends." That's how your boss can find out that you and Snidely have a thing going on. Never mind the fact that you probably didn't know you had a Windows Live Network.

At first blush, the new Wave 4 beta version of Messenger looks like it should block such blatant assaults on your privacy. There's a screen that appears when you start the beta Messenger inviting you to Set Up Your Privacy Settings. One of the options on that screen says "Private." There's an option when you accept an IM invitation to "Limit access this person has." Even if you tell Messenger, through the Windows Live Essentials privacy settings screen, that you want to keep your account "Private" and you "Limit access" to new people on your IM list, your information still gets displayed on other contact's Hotmail Today screen.

And your boss can quite innocently see that you're now friends with Snidely Whiplash.

Is that a beta bug? Or by design? Hard to say. My experiments continue.

For now, suffice it to say that your Messenger users may be in for a rude awakening. If they want to keep their IM contacts private -- or at least keep them off the Hotmail Today screen of everyone they've ever IMed -- it would be a good idea to use AOL Instant Messenger. Every version of Windows Live Messenger that I've seen, including the latest beta, tattles with impunity.

Woody Leonhard's been writing computer books since the days of Windows 3.1. His latest, "Windows 7 All-In-One for Dummies," tells the whole Win 7 story, the good and bad, in a way that won't put you to sleep.

This article, "Privacy problems persist in latest Windows Messenger 2011 beta," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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