I asked Steve Riley if he has inside information on the move from ROT13 to Vigenère for the UserAssist keys. It’s part of the beta program, to test upgrades. The final version of Windows 7 and Windows 2008 R2 will use ROT13 for the UserAssist keys, which has been used since Windows 2000.
The binary format of the UserAssist keys has also changed, I’ve decoded most of it.
Here’s Steve’s complete answer, published with permission:
We used ROT-13 to obfuscate UserAssist for its historical Usenet purpose — not to try to secure the data, but to express that the data shouldn’t be tampered with. Sort of like claiming “Don’t peek and definitely don’t modify unless you’re prepared to deal with the consequences. You’ve been warned.” There are times, like this one, where simple obfuscation is technically justified. ROT-13 was never an encryption scheme, everyone fully expects everyone else to recognize ROT-13 on sight, and some people even developed the ability to read it directly. ROT-13 was an easy and inexpensive way to invoke an implicit social contract.
As you know, UserAssist stores the info about your most frequently used applications for display on the Start menu. (Basic principles at http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2007/06/11/3215739.aspx.) The data isn’t confidential and doesn’t need to be encrypted — after all, opening the Start menu displays it. However, its stored format is subject to change, and we don’t want applications or people unintentionally changing it. So we ROT-13ed it, in a geeky attempt to convey exactly the same message that ROT-13 signified on Usenet.
In Windows 7 we made some changes to the way the MFU list is maintained and to the data’s storage format in UserAssist. When you upgrade from a previous version of Windows, we clear the MFU list and start anew. We don’t want old data to carry forward into this key. Changing the encoding from ROT-13 to Vigenère makes it easier for us to test that we’re getting the behavior we want — it’s obvious if old data carries over, because ROT-13ed data makes no sense to Vigenère. This is very useful in pre-release builds while we’re shaking the bugs out.
However, there’s no such benefit to using Vigenère in the final release — it doesn’t convey the same message as ROT-13, and since it’s key-based, it’s easy to mistake Vigenère for true encryption. Therefore, in the final release of Windows 7, we’ll revert to using ROT-13 for UserAssist.
Hope this helps clarify the issue. Feel free to post my email on your blog, too. Incidentally, we have plenty of real crypto in Windows 7 — check out the performance improvements to our AES implementation, for example.