“words—
lonely written words—are all you’ve got”

—Virginia Shea

“communication happens when I know you know what I know”

—Me

Of Parallels, proxies, privacy and support

Thanks to an incompatibility between Parallels Desktop for Mac and our company proxy server I learned that this software is designed to phone home without the user’s knowledge. What several folks have reported in online forums as an annoying behavior with this product is really the result of an attempted violation of privacy.

I’m not accusing Parallels of breaking any laws but based on my interactions with them while troubleshooting an issue I have little confidence that they understand why I am concerned.


I helped adopt Parallels as our Mac desktop VM software a few years ago when Apple introduced Intel hardware and Parallels Desktop for Mac was introduced. We’ve probably updated every license we’ve purchased since its early days and we’ve added licenses throughout the years. At home I use VMware simply to keep my knowledge up-to-date about both these major products in the virtual machine world.

I’ve been using Parallels Desktop 6.0 on my work computer since it was released in September 2010. Only recently did I learn that it was phoning home every time I launched it.

A problem with proxies

We have two proxy servers at work. A proxy server connects our company network to the Internet. All traffic between our company network and the Internet must go through a proxy. Proxy servers not only provide connectivity to the Internet but they can filter traffic too. For example, they can allow all HTTP and HTTPS traffic but block FTP and streaming audio/video. Or they can block certain addresses such as hacker sites and porn sites.

I use a special proxy server that allows me less restricted access to the Internet so that I can download software and research problems on sites that are often blocked by our more restrictive proxy server. Most everyone else uses the restrictive proxy.

While troubleshooting a user problem I had to switch to the restrictive proxy and during that time I launched Parallels Desktop for Mac 6.0. Almost immediately I received a proxy window asking me to enter my name and password for the proxy. This dialog only appears when software is trying to contact the Internet. I wrongly assumed this was an autoupdate request and tried to enter my credentials. It didn’t work.

Later I reviewed my Parallels preferences and found that auto updates were disabled. I had done that earlier because the update windows were getting in my way and I wanted to update on my own. Two other items that could potentially phone home were the Parallels Mobile feature and customer experience improvement program. Both were disabled. All other settings looked benign but as a means of troubleshooting I disabled everything.

Again, every time I launched Parallels the proxy prompt would appear. My Windows virtual machine was not even started yet so that wasn’t the cause.

After doing some research online I thought I’d found the solution. Parallels was wanting me to register and until I did so it would continue to prompt me. This was annoying because, again, their software appeared to be incompatible with our more restrictive proxy. But if that’s what was needed then I was fine with that.

The solution offered a one line Terminal command to trick Parallels into thinking it had been registered. Since it wasn’t getting through our proxy I thought this was the only solution I had.

It didn’t work, though. The proxy requests kept appearing every time I launched the software. At this point I decided to contact Parallels support. If anything I expected to be another customer complaining about the forced registration process and if they didn’t have a workaround then maybe at least they’d add my complaint to others they’d surely received. The date was Thursday, June 30.

Frustrations with first level support

First, I tried Parallels online chat support. Unfortunately, I don’t have that transcript but the process was infuriating. Being technical support myself, I try never to assume I know more about an issue than the support technician. I simply state the facts, which were:

Every time I launch Parallels Desktop 6.0 for Mac it is trying to connect to the Internet. I know it is trying to connect to the Internet because I am receiving a prompt to enter my proxy server name and password. The Parallels software does not work with our proxy server. I have disabled auto updates, Parallels Mobile and the customer experience improvement program. How can I disable Parallels connecting to the Internet?

The support technician couldn’t seem to understand this. Unfortunately, I had provided him two pieces of information, only one of which he latched onto:

  1. Parallels does not work through our proxy
  2. I want to disable Parallels from connecting to the Internet

No matter how hard I tried I could not get him to understand that the problem I wanted resolved was #2. He kept trying to fix #1.
After 30-45 minutes of trying to clarify my problem and him checking with other support staff, I finally ended the chat session saying something like:

I have spent too much time in this chat and believe you still do not understand my problem. That you for your help but I am NOT a satisfied customer.

Just to vent I threw out a comment on Twitter and within a few minutes received a response from the Parallels Twitter account.

Twitter Parallels 1

Great! Not only did I receive a quick response but someone actually understood my issue in under 140 characters and confirmed they were focussing on this issue. Why didn’t I just start here first?

So, I replied and received another response:

Twitter Parallels 2

No problem! At this point I felt like Ralphie from A Christmas Story and that I was about to be awarded honors and benefits just for tweeting into the open air.

Twitter Parallels conversation 3

This exchange irked me for a few reasons.

  1. Apparently Parallels wasn’t monitoring anything as the first tweet stated. It was a poor way to approach me and disarm my outburst.
  2. The person (or persons maybe?) did just like the chat support person and ignored information I presented upfront. On top of that I was Direct Messaging @ParallelsMac. It had “Mac” in the name. IE? Microsoft hasn’t made IE for nearly 10 years and they removed it altogether from their website five years ago.
  3. I was lobbed over the wall. That’s when you contact a company and the representative says something like, “Sorry, I can’t help you any further. You need to go down the hall, turn left and talk to someone there.” Basically, my time invested here counts toward nothing later and I have to start over.

So, I pursued opening a ticket on the Parallels site.

Problem Subject: Parallels attempts to connect to Internet at launch
Just installed the latest version of Parallels (6.0.12092.670880).
The computer is on a company network and accesses the Internet via a proxy server.
Every time I launch Parallels it attempts to connect to the Internet and displays a proxy server prompt asking for my credentials. I have disabled auto updates, disabled Customer Experience Improvement and Parallels Mobile is turned off.
I have tried entering my proxy credentials and they are not accepted.
My issue is that I do not want Parallels contacting the Internet without my approval. I do not want my users to see the proxy prompt on their computers. They are not administrators on their computers. How do I disable Parallels from trying to contact the Internet at launch?
I have attached a movie file demonstrating:
1. Launching Parallels.
2. Displaying the proxy prompt.
3. Three attempts to enter credentials for the proxy and failure.
4. Auto update settings are disabled in preferences.
5. Parallels mobile is disabled.
Also, I am unable to create a Problem Report ID because it too displays a proxy prompt but will not accept my credentials. Auto update displays the same behavior.

Within an hour or so I received this response:

Subject: [Parallels #1166140] Created by Parallels Desktop Technical Support chat from William Smith
Hello William,
Thank you for contacting Parallels Technical Support.
As I understand, you are asked to enter proxy server credentials upon Parallels Desktop start-up.
This issue might occur when automatic update for Parallels Desktop is selected. The automatic update always try to connect to the internet when turned on.
However, the following commands can be executed in the MAC ‘Terminal’ to disable the automatic updates:
defaults write “com.parallels.Parallels Desktop” “Application preferences.Check for updates” -int 0
defaults write “com.parallels.Parallels Desktop” “Application preferences.Download updates automatically” -bool No
This will help you resolve the issue.
Please let me know if you have any further questions.

The method the technician provided was simply the command line way of doing what I said I’d already done in Parallels preferences and had demonstrated via an attached movie. Yes, I recorded a movie and uploaded that as part of my trouble ticket. Why? To avoid having to repeat myself and more clearly explain what I had tried so far.
My response:

No, this does not address my problem.
I stated in my original message that I did not have automatic updates
turned on and I showed the preferences window in the attached movie to
indicate they were not turned on.

Another response from Parallels:

Subject: Re: [Parallels #1166305] Parallels attempts to connect to Internet at launch
Hello William,
Thank you for contacting Parallels Technical Support.
With reference to your issue we understand that every time you launch
Parallels it attempts to connect to the Internet.
William, This issue might occur when automatic update for Parallels
Desktop is selected. The automatic update always try to connect to the
internet when turned on.
However, the following commands can be executed in the MAC ‘Terminal’ to
disable the automatic updates:
defaults write “com.parallels.Parallels Desktop” “Application
preferences.Check for updates” -int 0
defaults write “com.parallels.Parallels Desktop” “Application
preferences.Download updates automatically” -bool No
Regarding following issue: “Three attempts to enter credentials for the
proxy and failure” I would recommend you to contact your system
administrator to get the correct credentials of your proxy server and we
will not be able to help you in this regard.
You may also try the below mentioned Workaround:
Open internet explorer-select tools from IE menu- then click on “internet
options”-in general if you see any home page set kindly remove or click
on “use blank” then click on apply then exit IE and let us know if it
helps you in resolving the issue.
Note: we have not received attachment with this mails which you stated
that “I have attached a movie file demonstrating”.
I am changing the ticket status to ‘Resolved’ and you can reply to this
ticket with in 14days from now.
Please let us know if you would require further assistance on the same.

Although the instructions were similar to the earlier instructions I received, this was from a different person and had a different ticket number. I wasn’t sure why. Ah wait! The first response was from my earlier chat conversation and not a response to the ticket I opened online. However, had this person read any of my original reports (chat or online ticket) then he’d have understood that the instructions he provided me still wouldn’t resolve my issue.
Let’s keep going.

My response:

Subject: Re: [Parallels #1166305] Parallels attempts to connect to Internet at launch
Again…
Automatic updates are disabled. I included a movie in my original support
ticket demonstrating this.
The proxy credentials are correct. They are my own. They work elsewhere.
Why is Parallels trying to connect to the Internet at startup?
1. Automatic updates are disabled.
2. Customer Experience Improvement preference is disabled.
3. Parallels mobile is disabled.
I am using a Macintosh. Internet Explorer is not made for Macintosh.
My issue I NOT resolved.

Next message from Parallels but regarding my online chat ticket:

Subject: [Parallels #1166140] Created by Parallels Desktop Technical Support chat from William Smith
Hello William,
Thank you for your reply.
For further investigation of this issue we would like to access your desktop, please provide us with below mentioned details in order to arrange a callback.
1) Your contact number.
2) Two to three convenient dates and time frames?
3) Your timezone details.
Awaiting your reply.

Great idea! If they couldn’t understand the problem in writing, movie or screen shots (yes, I included screenshots with one of my replies) then they would try to see the problem as I saw it. Actually, I received two requests to connect. One from each ticket. For one ticket I said I was working with someone else. For the other ticket I replied:

Subject: Re: [Parallels #1166305] Parallels attempts to connect to Internet at launch
I think this is a good idea.
We are on holiday until next Tuesday, July 5.
I suggest any of the following times next week:
Wednesday, July 6, any time between 3-5 p.m. CDT (1:30-3:30 a.m. IST)
Thursday, July 7, any time between 3-5 p.m. CDT (1:30-3:30 a.m. IST)
Friday, July 8, any time between 10 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. CDT (8:30-10:30 p.m.
IST)
I’m not sure what software you will be using to connect to my desktop,
however, if we have problems with it due to our proxy server then I have a
WebEx account that should work.

Now the tickets were merged.

A call from ‘Secondline support’

The following Wednesday, July 6, I did receive a call but I was pulled into an unexpected meeting and could not chat for more than a few minutes. I was instructed to watch for an email with some requests to take some screenshots of Activity Monitor while Parallels was not running and then running:

1. So please make sure that Parallels Desktop is shut down and click anywhere on your Mac desktop and from the top menu bar click on ‘Go’ and click on ‘Utility’.
2. Under ‘Utility’, please open ‘Activity Monitor’, please check if there is anything related to ‘Parallels’ or ‘prl’ listed over there, if yes, please make a note of it and let us know.
3. Now with this Activity Monitor still opened, please launch Parallels Desktop and check your activity monitor as to whether there are any new entries related to ‘Parallels’ or ‘prl’, please keep check this as you receive the message prompting you to enter your proxy credentials and let us know the ‘Parallels’ and ‘prl’ entries from activity monitor.
This will help us monitor and find out as to which service of Parallels Desktop is trying to go online and causing that issue.

I responded with the screen shots and included information generated by Parallels Desktop’s problem report generator, which also wouldn’t send through the proxy.

On Saturday, July 9, I received a message that my ticket had been escalated:

Subject: [Parallels #1166305] Ticket escalated — Parallels attempts to connect to Internet at launch
Dear Sir/Madam,
Your ticket has been escalated to our Secondline support engineers for the further detailed investigation. We will address your request as soon as possible and kindly ask for your patience and cooperation. We will contact you as soon as any investigation updates will be available.
There is no need to reply to this message right now.

As long as we were making progress then OK by me.

On Monday, July 11, I received a call from Sergey at Parallels and we were able to get him connected to my computer so that he could remote control and troubleshoot.

I demonstrated the problem to him and showed him my settings. He open the Terminal application and ran several commands. He was generally quiet while he worked and I just sat back and watched. Everyone once in a while he would ask a question and I’d respond. I explained to him that I did not want Parallels trying to connect to the Internet without my knowledge and that the proxy is how I was getting alerted to this problem.

This type of activity did wonders to calm me down. Whereas I had been fit to get ulcers just from having to repeat and explain myself to the first level support folks, seeing a technician reproduce my problem felt good. I was not unreasonable and wasn’t demanding an immediate fix. I knew that most software bugs can’t be fixed right away.

Knowing the problem, however, was 90% of the battle to getting it fixed.

Eventually, Sergey had to give up but I knew he understood the problem.

That was on Friday. A few days later on Tuesday, July 12, I received a message from another support person. (So far, I had been in touch with five other Parallels support folks.) Rashid wrote:

Subject: [Parallels #1166305] Parallels attempts to connect to Internet at launch
Hello William,
We will give you further update within 2 hours.

I kind of appreciated his brevity after wading through messages that in the end were not going to resolve this issue.
Another brief message from Rashid later:

Subject: [Parallels #1166305] Parallels attempts to connect to Internet at launch
Hello William,
We have passed the issue details to Parallels Maintenance Team. As they give us further instructions, we will let you know.

I still liked his brevity. One more message from Rashid:

Subject: [Parallels #1166305] Parallels attempts to connect to Internet at launch
Hello William,
We have passed the issue details to Parallels Maintenance Team. They have created an internal ticket in their database.
Unfortunately, we cannot provide an immediate solution and as further investigation is laid by Parallels Maintenance Team internally, current support ticket will be put to resolved state.
In case we receive further instructions or a workaround will be found, we will let you know.
Thank you for your understanding.

And I did understand. To me this was a perfectly acceptable answer. It may not have been a resolution but I knew someone at Parallels understood the issue and that it had a chance of being addressed in a future update.
A little less than a week later on Tuesday, July 19, Rashid sends me this message:

Subject: [Parallels #1175906] proxy request
Hello William,
Parallels Maintenance Team has provided a workaround.
It is needed to manually add access for Parallels Desktop to proxy credentials:
Screenshot is attached.
1) start “Keychain Access”
Applications -> Utilities -> Keychain Access
2) in Keychain “login” in category “passwords” find password to proxy ( on screenshot it is “proxy.qa.sw.ru” )
3) make double-click on it and in new dialog switch to “Access Control” tab.
4) click on “[+]” button and add “Parallels Desktop” ( /Applications/Parallels Desktop ) to list of applications witch have access to this entry.
5) click on “Save Changes” button
6) and start PD again.
PD should start without proxy credentials dialog.
As a probable solution has been provided, current ticket will be put to resolved state.

Once again, they were focussing on making the proxy work rather than trying to determine why Parallels was phoning home. JHC! I should have been popping Mylanta tablets by now. I was hoping for an “It Gets Better” campaign for folks who have to wade through support like this.

My reply:

Subject: Re: [Parallels #1175906] proxy request
Hello!
Sorry, but this does not work.
First, I don’t want the Parallels application accessing the Internet at
all without my approval. Your workaround is to grant access to the
Parallels application to access the Internet without any prompt.
Second, this workaround does not work even if I attempt it. Adding the
application to the keychain item is equivalent to selecting “Remember this
Password” in the proxy dialog window. If I enter a name and password and
select the option to remember the password, Parallels continues to display
an empty proxy prompt window (name and password are not stored).
If I may suggest a course of action: You need to determine why the
Parallels application is trying to connect to the Internet at every
startup when all options to do so are disabled.

A day later I received this automated message about support person #7 working on this issue:

Subject: [Parallels #1175906] proxy request
Hello William,
Yana Bernadskaya started to work on your task “proxy request”.
Yana Bernadskaya has 1 open tasks, and 0 of them are urgent.
Updates will be posted to:
https://support.parallels.com/SelfService/Display.html?id=1175906
The total number of support incidents open is now: 4

I wasn’t sure what this meant but I took it that someone was working to resolve this issue and figure out why Parallels was trying to phone home and stop it. And then a message from Yana:

Subject: [Parallels #1175906] proxy request
Dear William,
Would you please specify options which you disabled in order to prevent Parallels Desktop from connecting to the Internet?

Good lord, here we go again! Did no one at that company ever read the incident histories? My terse response:

Subject: Re: [Parallels #1175906] proxy request
In the preferences for Parallels 6.0 (with latest updates) I have disabled
AutoUpdate, Parallels Mobile and the Customer Experience feedback options.

A response, this time from Rashid and not Yana:

Subject: [Parallels #1175906] proxy request
Hello William,
Parallels Maintenance Team has informed us that Parallels Desktop is designed that way to check some data over the Internet and this activity cannot be disabled.
Concerning the proxy dialog window appearance (even with the provided instructions performed), we have passed that information to Parallels Maintenance Team for further investigation. As an immediate solution cannot be provided, current ticket will be put to resolved state. In case we receive further instructions, we will let you know.
Thank you for your understanding.

Sorry, no, I don’t understand:

Subject: Re: [Parallels #1175906] proxy request
What exactly is Parallels checking if it’s not checking for updates, not
reporting customer experience data and not enabling Parallels mobile?
Please be specific.

And, finally, an answer:

Subject: [Parallels #1175906] proxy request
Hello William,
Parallels Desktop connects to the Internet in order to update promo screens. Unfortunately this feature cannot be disabled.
Concerning the Keychain Access, would you please send us three screenshots (see attachments) showing:
1) Parallels Desktop is in the “Access Control” list,
2) “Web Proxy (HTTP)” with credentials inserted
3) “Secure Web Proxy (HTTPS)” with credentials inserted.
Thank you for your cooperation.

You. Are. Shitting. Me!

All this hassle over promo screens? I didn’t respond.
Rashid asked me for a follow up to his keychain solution the next day. The day after that I replied with:

Subject: Re: [Parallels #1175906] proxy request
Hi Rashid!
Now that I know the issue is with a built-in promo screen update and that
it cannot be disabled then I at least know the source of my problem. I
would send you the screenshots you requested, however, they will go no
farther in resolving my problem. Parallels’ proxy support is simply
incompatible with our proxy server. This is not a permissions issue. This
is a privacy issue.
Do you realize that building Parallels to contact your servers without the
user’s knowledge is a gross violation of privacy? Even if the Parallels
software not transmitting personal data, it is at minimum transmitting
location data (IP address), which customers may not want to share.
Customers have no way of knowing what information the Parallels
application is sending you and no way of knowing it is doing anything
except when they notice a proxy or firewall blocking this activity.
I strongly urge you to escalate this concern with your management and
change this policy. Until that happens our company will transition to a
different virtual machine platform.

Was “gross violation of privacy” too strong? At this point the entire support effort had been a gross violation of my time. But, yes, this was at least a violation of privacy. Parallels users are for the most part ignorant that each and every time they launch the application that it is trying to phone home.

Is it simply trying to update promo screens? Probably. Should I trust that answer? Absolutely not. Software companies have the right to know who has purchased their products. That’s it. Nothing more. If customers choose to share more information then that’s their prerogative not the developer’s.

A day later, Saturday, July 23, I receive this ballsy message from Andrey Pottosin (Team Leader, Support Department):

Subject: [Parallels #1175906] proxy request
Hello, William,
Allow me to refer you to the End User License Agreement:
http://www.parallels.com/about/eula/
Specifically:
———–
2. Intellectual Property and Confidentiality
* 2.1. Use Reporting, License Violations and Remedies. Parallels reserves the right to gather data on key usage including license key numbers, server IP addresses, domain counts and other information deemed relevant, to ensure that our products are being used in accordance with the terms of this End-User License Agreement. Parallels expressly prohibits simultaneous, multiple installations of our Software s and domain count overrides without prior written approval. Any unauthorized use shall be considered by Parallels to be a violation of this End-User License Agreement. Parallels reserves the right to remedy violations immediately upon discovery, by charging the then current list price of unauthorized keys to the credit card used to make the original, authorized purchase, or by any other means necessary. You agree not to block, electronically or otherwise, the transmission of data required for compliance with this agreement. Any blocking of data required for compliance under this agreement is considered to be violation of this agreement and will result in immediate termination of this Agreement pursuant to Section 4.
———–
Parallels Desktop connection to our servers is not possible to disable, and moreover, doing so would violate the EULA. Having this in mind, I would say that the workaround Rashid Fatkhutdinov worked out with our Maintenance team is the best solution path to pursue. We would be glad to assist you in making it work. The information we need, to quote Rashid Fatkhutdinov, is the following:
———–
Concerning the Keychain Access, would you please send us three screenshots (see attachments) showing:
1) Parallels Desktop is in the “Access Control” list,
2) “Web Proxy (HTTP)” with credentials inserted
3) “Secure Web Proxy (HTTPS)” with credentials inserted.

I’m sorry, what? For you to give me the option to disable updating your promo screens would violate your own EULA? Furthermore, you think a EULA gives you the right to violate privacy? Again, I don’t really doubt that this is caused by the Parallels Desktop software trying to update promo screens. But I’m not going to trust that.

My response to Andrey:

Subject: Re: [Parallels #1175906] proxy request
Hello Andrey!
I’ve not said what you’re doing is illegal nor have I said it violates
your EULA. That would be impossible since you write your own EULA.
I am saying simply that customers should have the ability to choose if
their software phones home. For any reason. Designing your software to do
so without giving them any knowledge that it is doing so is a violation of
their privacy. That’s what you should change.
Following is a link to a short video clip of Walt Mossberg interviewing
Steve Jobs about privacy. Although they are discussing the iPhone and how
they handle it with their iOS App Store, Jobs’ sentiment about privacy in
general comes through better than I can state it here. This is what I as a
Mac customer expect from not just you but all application vendors.

As for blocking any data that your application is trying to deliver to
you, we are not doing so intentionally. Again, your software is for some
reason incompatible with our proxy server. This is not an issue caused by
incorrect permissions. However, if you insist that you have the right to
collect data about how we are using Parallels in our business then we will
simply have to discontinue using your product. We cannot abide by that
restriction.

What Parallels does right and what it does wrong

This is my assessment of Parallels policy and Parallels support after 20+ days of frustration.
Right

  1. Parallels support was aggressive. Not once did I feel my reports were getting dropped or forgotten.
  2. Parallels support communicated with me. Was it too much? Not really. I felt as if someone were paying attention to me.

Wrong

  1. First level support needs to understand the problem before offering solutions. Multiple times I included “auto update is turned off” only to receive a reply that essentially said “turn off auto updates”.
  2. Don’t lob me over a wall. Is the @ParallelsMac Twitter account an official source of support? Well, if it’s going to act like it then it should take ownership and at least hand me off with a case number to another technician. Don’t tell me to start over with someone else.
  3. All support tickets should have an owner. In this case I communicated with eight different support people. And I had to repeat myself multiple times. If someone had owned my ticket then I’d at least have felt much of my time hadn’t been wasted.
  4. Most importantly, understand what privacy means to customers. Know your boundaries. I don’t care what your EULA says. You have no right to collect information about me without my knowledge. Even if you’re not collecting information, don’t give the appearance that you could be. Take Steve Jobs’ comments to heart.

For now, my plan is to move our users to VMware Fusion unless I find something equally objectionable about their support and privacy policies. I still think the Parallels Desktop software runs very well and I am satisfied with the product overall. However, with the poor level of support that I received and the privacy concerns I have with their software phoning home without my knowledge, I’m not inclined to continue having our company using this product.

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