The story began when a Reddit user reported something unusual in his download of FlightSimLabs’ A320X module. A file – test.exe – was being flagged up as a ‘Chrome Password Dump’ tool, something which rang alarm bells among flight sim fans.
As additional information was made available, the story became even more sensational. After first dodging the issue with carefully worded statements, FlightSimLabs admitted that it had installed a password dumper onto ALL users’ machines – whether they were pirates or not – in an effort to catch a particular software cracker and launch legal action.
It was an incredible story that no doubt did damage to FlightSimLabs’ reputation. But now the company is at the center of a new storm, again centered around anti-piracy measures and again focused on Reddit.
Just before the weekend, Reddit user /u/walkday reported finding something unusual in his A320X module, the same module that caused the earlier controversy.
“The latest installer of FSLabs’ A320X puts two cmdhost.exe files under ‘system32\’ and ‘SysWOW64\’ of my Windows directory. Despite the name, they don’t open a command-line window,” he reported.
“They’re a part of the authentication because, if you remove them, the A320X won’t get loaded. Does someone here know more about cmdhost.exe? Why does FSLabs give them such a deceptive name and put them in the system folders? I hate them for polluting my system folder unless, of course, it is a dll used by different applications.”
Needless to say, the news that FSLabs were putting files into system folders named to make them look like system files was not well received.
“Hiding something named to resemble Window’s “Console Window Host” process in system folders is a huge red flag,” one user wrote.
“It’s a malware tactic used to deceive users into thinking the executable is a part of the OS, thus being trusted and not deleted. Really dodgy tactic, don’t trust it and don’t trust them,” opined another.
With a disenchanted Reddit userbase simmering away in the background, FSLabs took to Facebook with a statement to quieten down the masses.
“Over the past few hours we have become aware of rumors circulating on social media about the cmdhost file installed by the A320-X and wanted to clear up any confusion or misunderstanding,” the company wrote.
“cmdhost is part of our eSellerate infrastructure – which communicates between the eSellerate server and our product activation interface. It was designed to reduce the number of product activation issues people were having after the FSX release – which have since been resolved.”
The company noted that the file had been checked by all major anti-virus companies and everything had come back clean, which does indeed appear to be the case. Nevertheless, the critical Reddit thread remained, bemoaning the actions of a company which probably should have known better than to irritate fans after February’s debacle. In response, however, FSLabs did just that once again.
In private messages to the moderators of the /r/flightsim sub-Reddit, FSLabs’ Marketing and PR Manager Simon Kelsey suggested that the mods should do something about the thread in question or face possible legal action.
“Just a gentle reminder of Reddit’s obligations as a publisher in order to ensure that any libelous content is taken down as soon as you become aware of it,” Kelsey wrote.
Noting that FSLabs welcomes “robust fair comment and opinion”, Kelsey gave the following advice.
“The ‘cmdhost.exe’ file in question is an entirely above board part of our anti-piracy protection and has been submitted to numerous anti-virus providers in order to verify that it poses no threat. Therefore, ANY suggestion that current or future products pose any threat to users is absolutely false and libelous,” he wrote, adding:
“As we have already outlined in the past, ANY suggestion that any user’s data was compromised during the events of February is entirely false and therefore libelous.”
Noting that FSLabs would “hate for lawyers to have to get involved in this”, Kelsey advised the /r/flightsim mods to ensure that no such claims were allowed to remain on the sub-Reddit.
But after not receiving the response he would’ve liked, Kelsey wrote once again to the mods. He noted that “a number of unsubstantiated and highly defamatory comments” remained online and warned that if something wasn’t done to clean them up, he would have “no option” than to pass the matter to FSLabs’ legal team.
Like the first message, this second effort also failed to have the desired effect. In fact, the moderators’ response was to post an open letter to Kelsey and FSLabs instead.
“We sincerely disagree that you ‘welcome robust fair comment and opinion’, demonstrated by the censorship on your forums and the attempted censorship on our subreddit,” the mods wrote.
“While what you do on your forum is certainly your prerogative, your rules do not extend to Reddit nor the r/flightsim subreddit. Removing content you disagree with is simply not within our purview.”
The letter, which is worth reading in full, refutes Kelsey’s claims and also suggests that critics of FSLabs may have been subjected to Reddit vote manipulation and coordinated efforts to discredit them.
It’s a little early to say for sure but it seems unlikely that this will end in a net positive for FSLabs, no matter what decision Reddit’s admins take.