How Microsoft Refused to Speak With Me About Windows Error Reporting (WER)
By Al Sacco
Managing Editor, CIO
Have you ever wondered what really happens to those Windows error reports you can send to Microsoft whenever a Windows app crashes? How many reports it must receive before taking action? Or whether it’s worth your time and effort to send duplicate reports if the error occurs repeatedly? I did, and I asked Microsoft. Unfortunately, after a week and a handful of assurances that they were working on responses, the software giant refused to speak with me.
First, some back story:
Recently, a flash-based advertisement on CIO.com began causing my Internet Explorer (IE) 7 browser—as well as the IE7 browsers of various colleagues around me—to frequently crash, sometimes as often as ten times a day. At first, it was easy enough to ignore with no more than a muffled expletive and a browser re-launch, but after a week or so of losing all my open tabs each time IE crashed, I couldn’t help but fixate on the issue a bit.
(Why not just use Firefox or some other browser, you ask? Well, because I’ve got so many darned logins and passwords stored in IE. And why not remove the ad from CIO.com? Well, those of you familiar with the publishing biz and the reason why CIO.com is free to access won’t need an answer from me, and I’m not going to get into that, regardless…)
Anywho, browser crashes—IE, Firefox or otherwise—aren’t at all uncommon, as I’m sure you know. And I’m also sure you’re all familiar with the Windows Error Message boxes that randomly appear when something rubs a Windows application the wrong way. You know, the ones that look like this:
Such messages also request that you send an error report to Microsoft “to help [it] improve Internet Explorer.”
Which brings me to the experience that inspired this blog post.
I started thinking about how Microsoft Windows Error Reporting (WER) works, and imagined the huge scale of the whole operation. It also occurred to me that plenty of folks like me are likely out there surfing the Web, dealing with random Windows crashes and wondering the same thing, but never asking.
So I reached out to Microsoft with some very general questions about the Windows Error Reporting system. What I got back from a PR rep was text taken directly from Microsoft’s website that had little to do with my specific questions. Instead, the responses I received related more to the privacy-issues associated with WER, even though the questions I asked had absolutely nothing to do with user privacy.
Regardless, Microsoft assured me that “No data is sent without the user’s permission.” And that WER data “is used for quality control purposes only and is not used for tracking individual users or installations for any marketing purpose.”
The one question I asked that Microsoft did answer was whether or not it makes sense to send multiple error reports related to the same issue. “It certainly isn’t ‘necessary,’ but Microsoft encourages users to do so,” the response read. “Microsoft, and most other vendors, prioritizes fixes according to error report volume.”
Naturally, I sent a few follow-up questions that were significantly more specific, in hopes that I might get more in response than simple cut-and-paste. When I wrote them, they didn’t seem particularly controversial:
1) Can you provide a rough estimate of how many Windows error reports Microsoft receives in one day? If not, how about in a week, month or year?
2) You mentioned that Microsoft prioritizes fixes according to error report volume. How many error reports need to be received for Microsoft to start investigating an issue?
3) Are all error reports addressed eventually, or do a certain number or reports need to be received for the company to look into a potential problem?
In reply, I received assurances from the PR person that someone would get back to me with answers as soon as possible.
Four days later, I got the following message from Microsoft:
“Thank you for your interest in the Windows Error Reporting system. After further research and investigation, we have no additional comments.”
At first I was disappointed. I genuinely want to better understand the WER process and how it helps Microsoft and other hardware and software vendors improve interoperability among their products. And I wanted to write a quality post to give my readers an answer to the question I’d been investigating for a week.
Now, after some consideration, I realize that I’m just one journalist who knocked on Redmond’s front door with what I thought were harmless questions, only to find the gate bolted and the lights turned out because Microsoft apparently didn’t find the questions as harmless as I did.
I know Microsoft needs to beware what information it hands over to journalists—or anyone else for that matter. And I know privacy is a sticky slope that the company has been struggling with for some time, be it with its Windows Genuine Advantage anti-piracy program, WER, or any other system that gathers user data. I don’t know if my questions raised a red flag because Microsoft thought I was trying to dig up information on WER privacy issues or if they just didn’t want to me to attempt to measure the level of error reporting associated with its products.
I do, however, have to say that Microsoft’s reaction to my questions raised a tiny red flag of my own. I was reminded of a child who wrongly assumes he or she is caught in the act of stealing a treat from the cookie jar and blurts out “I didn’t steal the last cookie,” bringing attention to the missing dessert and incriminating themselves at the same time.
If I wanted information about the privacy safeguards associated with the WER system, I would’ve asked for it. All I wanted was information on why Microsoft wants us to send error reports, how the data collection works and whether or not doing so has any real bearing on the improvement of the products and services we use every day.
I like to think that my post could’ve led some of you to submit more Windows error reports. Or at least understand what’s happening when you do. Instead, I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth–and unanswered questions.
Al Sacco was a journalist, blogger and editor who covers the fast-paced mobile beat for CIO.com and IDG Enterprise, with a focus on wearable tech, smartphones and tablet PCs. Al managed CIO.com writers and contributors, covered news, and shared insightful expert analysis of key industry happenings. He also wrote a wide variety of tutorials and how-tos to help readers get the most out of their gadgets, and regularly offered up recommendations on software for a number of mobile platforms. Al resides in Boston and is a passionate reader, traveler, beer lover, film buff and Red Sox fan.