The Real Cost of Windows 10; Personal Privacy

Microsoft has created a wonderful new operating system: Windows 10. Making up for many of the shortcomings of its predecessor, Windows 8, it is no wonder the new OS received over 14 million downloads in its first 24 hours. However, it would be negligent not to take a moment to seriously scold Microsoft for their blatant disregard for user privacy.

Problem

User tracking, information gathering, and targeted ads have become privacy issues that leave a sour taste in the mouths of users and online privacy advocates alike; and Microsoft’s new Windows 10 OS unfortunately falls prey to each of these faults — or rather, allows its users to fall prey to them. Surprisingly, Microsoft makes the process of opting out of their privacy setting unreasonably difficult, with 13 separate privacy windows and an external site users must visit to complete the process.

A small excerpt of Microsoft’s Privacy Statement highlights Windows 10’s disregard for our privacy concerns.

“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 Microsoft’s level of reach might seem astonishing to some here, it is just the tip of the privacy issues iceberg inherent in Windows 10. While I’m sure all of their privacy settings are appropriately laid out in their statements, RockPaperShotgun (RPS) raises a good point in their article when they say the documents amount to 45 pages of language that is far from simplistic.

According to RPS, the unclear, jargony language of Microsoft’s documents on the issue seem to be directly contradicting their goal of transparency, as Microsoft professes that “real transparency starts with straightforward terms and policies that people can clearly understand”. To this, RPS crafts the perfect response: “There is no world in which 45 pages of policy documents and opt-out settings split across 13 different Settings screens and an external website constitutes ‘real transparency’.” Now that’s clear.

Solutions

Disregarding these shortcomings, Windows 10 appears to be a very successful OS. Now that we’ve taken the appropriate time to address the privacy pitfalls of Windows 10, we can begin exploring the various solutions so we can enjoy Microsoft’s new product.

Opting Out

As frustrating as it is to read about your need to opt out of settings when you didn’t opt in, it is even more frustrating to write about it; but this is an important issue, and so we press on: begin by opening your privacy settings. You will find your settings under the newly reborn Start Menu. Once in settings, click on privacy, where you will see the 13 screens previously mentioned. By default you will see many of the settings turned on, and you can click through the screens turning off settings you do not want. In this window you can determine which apps have access to specific information. Some sections included are Location, Messages, and contacts. See image below.

WiFi Sense

Windows 10 has a couple of new WiFi options also located in settings. First, Windows 10 has an option to automatically connect to suggested open WiFi hotspots, which are contained in a crowdsourced database held by Microsoft. In a previous article, 10 Steps to Online Security while Travelling, I discussed the security and privacy risks of connecting to Public WiFi Hotspots and how they should usually be avoided. That being said, a tool that connects you to WiFi automatically based on a list developed by strangers does not leave me with the sense of security I’m really looking for.

Second, you have the option to connect to networks shared by your contacts. This tool was created by Microsoft to get around having to ask your friends for their WiFi Passwords. Sharing your network means you can connect to your friends WiFi without their password and vice-versa, as passwords are encrypted and stored on Microsoft servers. The issue many take with this feature — outside of the fact that they don’t want their internet password stored on some server — is that there is little to no specificity as to who you share your internet access with. If, for example, you choose to share your WiFi through your Facebook friends list, you cannot pick and choose which friends receive access. A picture of the WiFi Sense options are below.

Break-up with Cortana

While Cortana — named after the beloved Halo game — is an exciting addition to Windows 10, unfortunately, the level of information it requires causes a lot of users to to drop her as quickly as they picked her up.

This article by Polygon shows the section of Microsoft’s Privacy statement as it relates to Cortana:

“To enable Cortana to provide personalized experiences and relevant suggestions, Microsoft collects and uses various types of data, such as your device location, data from your calendar, the apps you use, data from your emails and text messages, who you call, your contacts and how often you interact with them on your device. Cortana also learns about you by collecting data about how you use your device and other Microsoft services, such as your music, alarm settings, whether the lock screen is on, what you view and purchase, your browse and Bing search history, and more.”

Here we see the wide breadth of information Cortana needs to function. If, like me, this is more information than you want to give up, then it is probably a good idea to disable Cortana. Though, to be fair to Microsoft, other applications similar to Cortana, such as Siri, also take a significant amount of information from users.

External Website

But what really makes most of us scratch our heads is that Windows 10 in not even properly set up for our privacy yet: once finished with all the settings we wish to handle on our device, we still need to go to an external website to finish the process! The website, linked here, is the last stop Microsoft takes you to, where you can finally turn off personalized ads to your browser. There is a second option to disable personal ads whenever you use your Microsoft account, but you will need to be signed in to turn this feature off.

The video below, created by ThioJoeTech, goes into specific details about which settings to turn off and how to access each of them. Take a few minutes to visually navigate Windows 10 privacy settings.

Altogether, Microsoft has created an OS that has taken leaps and bounds beyond its predecessor, excluding the area of privacy. Take the time to set your OS with the appropriate privacy settings so you do not pay the real cost of Windows 10.

 

About Ryan Jeethan

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Ryan is a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo’s Arts & Business program focusing on UW’s unique Speech Communication program.

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