Con Error

Microsoft's Error Reports—Just Feel-Good Fluff?

Q: Whenever my Internet Explorer goes kaput, I get this pop-up asking whether I want to send an error report to Microsoft. I always click "send," but I've yet to get feedback from a helpful Gates minion. Is there any real point to these error reports, or are they just feel-good fluff?

Well, there's no I in "error report," and Mr. Roboto's of the mind that this isn't a cosmic accident. No, you're not going to have Paul Allen calling you up at 3 a.m. and inquiring, "Please, good sir, how can I help?" But those error reports do ostensibly help Microsoft prioritize its hole patching, as they can figure out which bugs are wreaking the most havoc. Even so, you're not obligated to participate in their info-gathering scheme, and there's good reason to opt out.

The error report is Windows XP's version of the "blue screen of death," the sea of azure that formerly signaled that your operating system was temporarily (or even permanently) FUBAR. When an application conks out, Windows diagnoses the problem, then asks whether you want to send that data to its servers in Redmond. The data includes your IP address, which identifies your machine. Microsoft's error-collection policy says other personal markers aren't intentionally gleaned, but "it is possible that such information may be captured in memory or in the data collected from open files." In other words, the company could inadvertently snag a chunk of memory that includes a sensitive document or Web form.

Call Mr. Roboto naive, but the prospect of Microsoft using such info for nefarious purposes just isn't that menacing—as if Gates the Jillionaire were just dying to get his hands on your Social Security number. The problem is that Microsoft makes its database accessible to many third-party vendors, since it's often third-party software that's responsible for the crashes. And once you've got personal data floating around in a publicly accessible database, well, the odds of something very, very bad occurring go way, way up.

On the plus side, the pop-ups occasionally direct you to a fix, almost always a note on the Microsoft download site informing you that you haven't patched your system recently. As long as you keep your automatic-update utility flicked on, this shouldn't be an issue. (XP users can activate auto-updating from the System Properties dialog; Mr. Roboto strongly recommends the "Notify me before downloading . . . " option.)

A last knock against error reporting is that it may cause scripting errors—that is, the cure may actually be worse than the disease. Mr. Roboto hasn't seen any solid evidence of this, but hears the reports may indeed cause consternation on machines lacking sufficient RAM or suffering from configuration problems. You know what they say about Windows—the more you run, the more you crash.

If you'd prefer not to participate in Microsoft's info-gathering exercise, turning off error reports is easy enough. Just go to the System Properties dialog (right-click on My Computer), click on the Advanced tab, and click on Error Reporting. You can even customize which applications will launch error reports, a useful power if you're being pestered by persistent crashes in a particular program. (Pardon the excessive alliteration, comrades.)

A Microsoft programmer might argue that refusing to send error reports isn't in the communal spirit, and makes their task of writing patches all the tougher. So how's this for a fair trade—we'll start error reporting again when Microsoft starts writing code that doesn't go haywire every 48 hours. Deal?


Geek he may be, but Mr. Roboto's got a jock streak too—an ex-varsity punter who came this close to third-team all-league in '92. So he's just as jazzed as you are about the NFL playoffs, which he's hoping to watch on an iMac thanks to eyeTV. The TiVo-like gizmo, made by Elgato (elgato.com), lets you watch, record, and even edit whatever's on the telly. The FireWire version's especially recommended, as the picture quality's better than the standard USB model. What better way to watch Mr. Roboto's beloved Edgerrin James rush his way to playoff glory.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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