August 30, 2003

When License Keys Cost More Than You Ever Imagined

"An interesting issue has occured with a client of North County Computers and we feel its NCC's duty to warn our clients of potential legal and financial issues of buying a PC from an OEM with a Windows operating system pre-installed. Our client has ordered over 200 Dell Optiplex and Dimension systems over the last three years. Financial issues have led to layoffs at the company in recent months. One of the recent layoffs included the systems administrator of the company. It was when the layoff of the sysadmin occured that NCC was brought on to support the remaining users and systems as an outsourced IT solution. "One of the tasks the prior sysadmin performed was to compile a list of all CD License Keys (serial numbers) for all company workstations. In the case of the systems purchased in the last year, this was done by simply recording the key that is on the sticker placed on the side of the system (placed there by Dell, not at the company's request). On the ex-sysadmin's last day, he posted the complete list of serial numbers on the internet, presumably as an act of bitterness at being laid off. This act was unknown to NCC and our client at the time.

"In the last few weeks, recent viruses have resulted in patches needing to be applied. In a few cases, those patches caused errors that required re-installing the operating system of the workstation. Interestingly, re-installing from the original Dell installation CD now prompts for Windows Software Activation (something not normally required of pre-installed, OEM installations). Attempting to activate the product instructed us to visit and stated that the product could not be activated and we needed to contact Microsoft. It was after this occured over 5 times that we started investigating the problem. Eventually we found the email of license keys in the Sent Items folder of the prior sysadmin's account showing he had mailed them out to himself and posted them to a newsgroup. Further searches for 'Windows XP Professional' on showed that most of our keys were publically available for download."

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