Make Windows 10’s Prying Eyes See Only What YOU Choose Them to

Make Windows 10’s Prying Eyes See Only What YOU Choose Them to

Windows 10 is out, and along with the hype for amazing new features came a real, palpable concern about the privacy of your data. Some of the greatest things in Microsoft’s new OS rely on the online cloud, and that means that some of your data is being sent to Microsoft to be stored and analyzed. It includes everything from your web searches and typing history to voice commands and product preferences. In this article, we will try  to explain the information you are giving up, and go deeper into the settings menu, in order to show you how to take control over the data that is being shared.

Microsoft has not only made a better Operating System with Windows 10. They have made a brave and responsible step towards being honest about what pieces of your private data are being collected and have given you a great deal of control over many parts of that process. When it comes to data collection, it’s not much different from what your smartphone or web browser is already doing, with or without your permission. However, finally being able to clearly see what, when and where is getting collected is new – shocking for some, and eye-opening for the others.

While the folks from Redmond have given you the power to opt-out of these services, most of these permissions are given to them by default. When deciding on why you would want to revoke the permission for Microsoft’s OS to access and store your information, please bear in mind the paragraph from Microsoft’s privacy statement, saying:

Finally, we will access, disclose and preserve personal data, including your content (such as the content of your emails, other private communications or files in private folders), when we have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary to: 1. comply with applicable law or respond to valid legal process, including from law enforcement or other government agencies; 2. protect our customers, for example to prevent spam or attempts to defraud users of the services, or to help prevent the loss of life or serious injury of anyone; 3. operate and maintain the security of our services, including to prevent or stop an attack on our computer systems or networks; or 4. protect the rights or property of Microsoft, including enforcing the terms governing the use of the services – however, if we receive information indicating that someone is using our services to traffic in stolen intellectual or physical property of Microsoft, we will not inspect a customer’s private content ourselves, but we may refer the matter to law enforcement.

While applauding Microsoft for keeping this short and simple, and not diluted or obfuscated the way we are used to with similar products, seeing it this clearly described should make everyone review the data they would like to submit to Microsoft’s “inspection in good faith”.

Privacy settings

Clicking the “Settings” in the Start menu – then “Privacy” will get you to the privacy settings with THIRTEEN different screens of options and switches. Most of these screens let you customize and limit the privacy settings that were being given to apps by default in earlier versions of the OS.  The controversial settings are grouped under “General” and “Speech, inking and typing” tabs.

With great power comes great responsibility - there are 13 screens of privacy options in Windows 10

These 13 screens feature many options you want to keep on – you want Skype to be able to access your camera and microphone, as well as let calendar apps see your calendar data. You probably want to let SmartScreen Filter run your browser’s URL against the list of scam and malware websites in order to warn you when you visit dangerous parts of the Internet.  However, you might want to opt-out of letting apps use your advertising ID (or not – if you want to see more relevant ads).

Letting Microsoft look at how you write, type or speak might improve your personal experience with windows, and it is necessary if you want to use Cortana. This sort of information is commonly given up in competitors’ products (everything you tell Siri gets stored for two years, Google stores it forever but gives you a way to opt-out) – but Microsoft has given you a certain degree of control over the process. Don’t want to use Cortana? Consider turning these options, listed under  “Speech, inking and typing” tab. If you want to turn it on again, click the “Get to know me” button on the same screen. You will give up information like contacts, recent Calendar entries, speech patterns and typing history.

Typing history controversy

The “typing history” part is what got the Internet buzzing, and got some websites to accuse Windows 10 of coming with a built-in keylogger. Microsoft has not clearly explained how the collection process really works, what sort of typing data is getting collected and where it is getting collected at.

The "typing history" on this screen is left creepily unexplained.

Cortana is a great piece of software, and if you believe in the good faith of the Windows’ creators, there is no reason to leave it off. If you don’t, however, consider leaving the “Get to know me” option off until a more detailed description is released, or an option to turn off the typing history tracking is added.

Even though there is no clear explanation of the process, the bits and pieces of Windows 10 FAQ shed some light at the situation. This page officially explains that the typing history is stored locally on your machine, and that bits and pieces of that history (probably your voice and typing searches that match it) are collected by Microsoft’s cloud. It also explains that leaving the “Get to know me” on, but turning off the “Send Microsoft info about how I write” under “General” would make all the collected typing data remain only at your computer, locally, without being sent to Microsoft.

Bing settings

Do not ignore the “Go to Bing and manage personal info for all your devices” link on the “Speech, Inking and Typing” screen. Clicking it will open a new Microsoft Internet Explorer Edge window with four more screens of privacy settings related to your online privacy. The “Manage my Microsoft advertising and other personalization info” in the “General” screen gives you more customization options.

You might be tempted to turn all of these off, but leaving some of the information to be analyzed might get you a better Internet browsing experience. Turning these off does not mean you will see fewer ads, and only limits Microsoft’s ability to track you in order to show you what they consider are “more relevant” ads. If you are concerned about giving up this data to Microsoft, you might look into these pages (ad settings, cookie opt-out, account history and shared endorsements) to restrict Google’s access to the same data.

Using local account

Using local account might give you additional relief

You can choose to log into Windows 10 in two ways – with a local account or with a Microsoft’s unified online account. The latter will make your Store experience easier, and will provide you a better, more consistent experience across all of your Windows devices.  However, using the local account may give you an additional level of assurance that some of the collected data is staying on your computer. Go to Settings -> Accounts and make your choice there.

Distributed Updates

This is a new setting worth looking into, even if it does not directly concern privacy. Each time an update is released, Microsoft’s servers have to send huge amounts of data, making the process hard for them and slow for the users. To improve the experience, Microsoft wants to use your bandwidth to send updates to other users as  you are downloading them – not unlike how BitTorrent works. This is not an unusual practice – World of Warcraft has been distributing it’s updates for years this way, and it makes updating faster. However, if you are on a restrictive data cap, you should probably turn this option off. It is a well explained feature, but hidden under Settings -> Update & Security -> Advanced options -> Choose how updates are delivered.

Microsoft’s honesty about the Windows 10 data collecting practices is a bold move. The lack of clarification on some of the data collection practices has, however, made it a frightening (instead of encouraging) experience. We would like to see other companies being as clear about these practices, but we also appeal to Microsoft to further clarify and explain the overwhelming amount of data collection processes, and give the user even more control over them.

Author: Milutin Pavicevic

Milutin is a UX designer and front-end developer at <a href="https://alicorn.me/">Alicorn</a>, with an academic degree in mathematics and computer sciences. He is an amateur comic book artist and an avid gamer with a taste for strange and weird.

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