The age of software piracy is over

Published on January 23, 2012 under Technology


The other week, I spent several hours doing a favor for a friend. I was reformatting his laptop and reinstalling Windows as well as his other software. I'm sure some of you Mac and Linux folk are about ready to crack Windows jokes, but the method that caused my friend to put a rather dangerous piece of spyware into his computer is no laughing matter, and not just a Windows issue.

The story goes as follows. He wanted to rip some of his DVD collection and then convert them into video files he could play on his smartphone. In order to do this, he would need DVD-ripping software. So rather than shop around and pay a modest amount of money for a software title, he decided he could be sneaky and download a pirated copy off the internet.

So he went on Google and found a link to a pirated version of DVDFab sitting on a file transfer site, like the recently closed Megaupload. He downloaded and tried to install the software when Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) rang off, saying there was some kind of virus. MSE removed the virus, which gave my friend a moment of relief. Unfortunately when he restarted his computer, MSE chimed in again saying it stopped and removed the same virus from his laptop. He restarted and again got the same message.

So he called me for help.

Not your typical hacking

Now anyone could easily assume that this was your typical "play with fire and you get burned" scenario. That this was probably just someone putting a Windows-destroying virus into the computer to showcase Microsoft security openings. When I first looked for a possible "fix" or cure to this, I found out the virus was actually is a dangerous piece of spyware built to secretly broadcast keystrokes and activity my friend would do; especially user names, passwords, and credit card information.

Put it this way, he's lucky he didn't do anything on the computer, like go to his banking website or enter his Social Security Number. If he had, then there is a chance those hackers would have obtained it, and stolen his identity. Now I know MSE caught this, but there never is any proof that the hackers were blocked...especially since I could not remove the spyware without reformatting his laptop.

So many techies might then assume this happened with the Key Generator program, aka "keygen". For those who don't know, a keygen program is a small program included with pirated software. Generally you would install the program on a trial basis, but then run this program to either get a serial number generated or to modify and fool the install into thinking you paid for the program. Thus you get it for free. Keygen programs have been a massive controversy now simply because many hackers would hide spyware and even malware in these programs.

I wish I could say this was the case though. My friend did not pick up that virus from the included keygen, but from the install program itself. This is NOT typical. The hackers that pirated that copy of DVDFab managed to reprogram the install file to add in their spyware, thus fooling people like my friend to install it. Had MSE not gone off, he would have been broadcasting his activity, even if he wasn't using that bootleg version of DVDFab.

The game has changed

Identity TheftLet's forget about the Department of Justice (DoJ) coming to arrest someone for piracy. Forget about the RIAA and MPAA going on and on about piracy. Forget the talk of if big software makers are losing money or not. Even forget about the debate over the legality of ripping a DVD you bought legally. This incident is a big game changer, and why I honestly believe the age of people pirating software has to end.

Think about if those hackers had managed to succeed with my friend. Imagine how much money he could have lost in identity theft, just to save the $50 that DVDFab costs. Was it really worth it? I've heard the debates to death about how music, movies, and software is so expensive, but imagine the hell of having to deal with identity theft. I did.

Back in 2000, I worked at a dotcom, and in my naivety I gave my employer my Social Security Number. He claimed he wanted to run a credit check on me, and again...I was naive and thought that.

Around 2002, a year after the dotcom had folded, I got a call from a bill collector claiming I owed them $1000 for a Sprint cell phone bill. Bewildered, I told them I never had a Sprint phone. After checking the facts, it was determined that my former boss apparently got a cell phone in my name, but put his home address as the billing address. He stole my identity.

So I was off the hook, but this kept haunting me, as a new bill collection agency would buy this debt and then try to harass me into paying the $1000. I stood strong and never paid a dime, but going through this song and dance three times was annoying. Imagine if I couldn't prove it wasn't me?

Now I'm no angel. I've pirated software in the past, like many have, but I stopped years ago. Part of the reason was guilt, but the other was simply the fear of these viruses. It's one thing when you keep your eye out for the DoJ, RIAA, and MPAA, but it's another when you now have to look out to make sure your sources are also not trying to hurt you.

You have options

Think about why people pirate software. We can claim they are cheap, but in many ways I will agree the past reason was that software was just plain expensive. A big example is Adobe Photoshop.

Currently the full CS5 Extended version of Photoshop will run you $1000. Yes, that is expensive, but you should ask yourself IF you really need it. In my line of work, the answer is yes. How about for the simple office worker or home user who just wants to resize a photo? Or add text to it? You don't need a big rig truck if all you want to do is go two blocks to the grocery store. Photoshop Elements will run you only $100, and I'm sure it will give you all the functions the non-designer would need. Go further, you can download GIMP for free and you're set.

Even for designers, you can shave $300 off that $1000 price tag by going with the normal "not Extended" Photoshop. All you lose are 3D and video imagery functions, two things I know I don't use very much. $700 can be covered simply by doing one website for a freelance client.

Let's look at another example, like Microsoft Office. Think about how many functions and parts of MS Office you really use. I'm currently typing this blog entry on Google Docs, a free service. Some will say that Google Docs is not as robust as MS Office, and they're right. However, I'm not doing major word processing work here, nor am I making large accounting spreadsheets. I don't even use titles like Access or Outlook anymore. So why pirate MS Office when you simply need a basic word processor and perhaps spreadsheet? You could even just use OpenOffice for free.

You have options, and I think it's time more people explore them. I could go out and pirate Adobe Creative Suite 5.5, but why? All I'd really use is Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and once in a while Flash, InDesign, and Illustrator. I might not be willing to give up Photoshop, but I could give up Dreamweaver for a $50 program called Coffee Cup HTML that does practically everything Dreamweaver does. I could give up Illustrator for a freeware program called InkScape, simply because again I never use the advanced functions of Illustrator. I barely even use Flash now since the industry has become so anti-Flash, and InDesign is mainly for print work. Again, not my field.

This has got to become the new logic for the home user. Start asking yourself if you really need the high-end software when you're only using the basic functions. Use free and legal software titles like OpenOffice, GIMP, and InkScape rather than risk your personal life with hacked files that could contain viruses. We live in a wonderful age now where we actually have good options.

Putting my money where my mouth is

To prove my point, I'm going to embark on a new project. I've been planning on a redesign and rebuild of the Culinaria food blog, and I've decided I want to do it using Google Docs, GIMP, InkScape, and Coffee Cup HTML. I'm literally going to do everything I'd use MS Office, Photoshop, Illustrator, and Dreamweaver for, but only at the cost of $50 (for Coffee Cup HTML). I'll be blogging this experience the way I'm doing with Illusion Bar • Grill • Café, and hopefully show entry-level guys and freelancers how they could do their job without the expensive software titles.

What do you think? Is it time to stop pirating software? Have you stopped?

Tags: software, piracy, virus, spyware, malware

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