How-To

How Much Does Windows 10 Spy on You?

Ever wanted to know what Windows 10 knows about you? This article details what type information Windows 10 collects and how to manage it.

Privacy has been a major concern among some users since Windows 10 was first released. Microsoft does provide a privacy web page where it details how and what kind of information Windows 10 collects. Windows 10 also includes a dedicated Privacy setting, which lets users configure and adjust what they want the operating system to know and access; from location services to the camera.

Version 1703, released in March 2017, was Microsoft’s first step toward being more transparent about the data collected by Windows 10. The software firm went a step further by providing a dashboard where users can configure even more settings in regards to advertisements in the web browser, your Microsoft Account, and services such as the Cortana digital assistant. This article takes a close look at Privacy in Windows 10 and how you can control what Windows 10 knows about you—and whether it even makes sense to do so.

What does Windows 10 know about you?

The information collected by Windows 10 focuses on several areas within the system: users accounts, installed apps, and services such as Location and the Bing search engine. Recently, Microsoft revealed more details regarding its progress toward being transparent about data collection in Windows 10. The software firm noted that a vast majority of the 500 million systems running Windows 10 consented to diagnostics data being collected.

For example, 71 percent of customers are selecting Full diagnostics data to help us fix things and improve Microsoft products. While your direct feedback like, “The privacy settings added to clean installs are a boon for the privacy minded,” and “Very well done,” is great to hear, we know there is still work to do to meet and anticipate the expectations across our diverse customer base and provide you with the best privacy experience possible. Source

But what exactly does this entail? Do people know they are agreeing to this? And when do you get to choose?

The best place to start with privacy in Windows 10 is when you first setup and configure a new Windows 10 PC. The out of box experience presents options for adjusting your privacy settings before you reach the desktop. Users can view additional information about what each setting does. Probably the two least important in Microsoft’s choice of data collection are Relevant Ads and Tailored experiences with diagnostic data. According to Microsoft:

Microsoft uses the data we collect to provide you the products we offer, which includes using data to improve and personalize your experiences. We also may use the data to communicate with you, for example, informing you about your account, security updates and product information. And we use data to help show more relevant ads, whether in our own products like MSN and Bing, or in products offered by third parties. However, we do not use what you say in email, chat, video calls or voice mail, or your documents, photos or other personal files to target ads to you. Source

Check out our previous article about the Microsoft Privacy Dashboard for instructions how to turn off Personalized ads in the browser using the Privacy Dashboard.

So, if you want advertisements that fit your location and culture, this option is available to you—but it’s not necessary. As for security updates, I don’t need ads to tell me about a security update. Windows Update already does a rather good job of ensuring updates are downloaded and installed.

If you really want to know what Windows 10 does know about you, the Privacy setting in Windows 10 is worth reviewing. It clearly tells you what data it’s collecting and sharing with the built in apps and those from third parties.

Location Services

Windows 10 keeps tabs on where you are located and shares that information with websites and installed apps. Granular options are available so that users can limit location access to specific apps. Users do have the option to disable Location services entirely. In Windows 10, click Start > Settings > Privacy > Location.

Windows 10 also keeps a log of places you have visited for a short period of time on your device – about 24 hours. You can use the Privacy dashboard to clear this information. Bing, Maps, and Cortana benefit the most from Location services.

Bing services include search and mapping services, as well as the Bing Toolbar and Bing Desktop apps. Bing services are also included within other Microsoft services, such as MSN Apps and Cortana, and certain features in Windows (which we refer to as Bing-powered experiences).

When you conduct a search, or use a feature of a Bing-powered experience that involves conducting a search or entering a command on your behalf, Microsoft will collect the search or command terms you provide, along with your IP address, location, the unique identifiers contained in our cookies, the time and date of your search, and your browser configuration. Source

Users should think carefully about whether you should clear this data. Services such as Find My Device, which you can use to locate a lost or stolen device, depend on location services.

Search and Bing

If you use the Bing search engine to look for information, the site parses your search queries for both personalization and auto suggestions. This is not unique to Bing; Google does it too—Brian recently wrote up a piece on how to view and disable your Google Account history settings. Bing also works with Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana, so you can get answers to questions. If you want to clear this information, open the Privacy Dashboard, select the Search tab then click Clear search history.

Cortana

This leads us to Cortana, the digital assistant that powers a lot of intelligence built into Windows 10. Digital assistants are a fundamental part of services and operating systems today and in the future; whether it’s Google Assistant; Siri in macOS and iOS; Alexa on the Amazon Echo; or Samsung’s Bixby. Cortana’s method of collecting and tracking information is done through notebooks.

Users can find this setting by opening Cortana on the Taskbar then selecting the Notebooks tab. The settings tab let users adjust what Cortana collects, knows and your interaction. Many of these settings are unchecked by default, but you can periodically review them if you want Cortana to stop doing something.

In the next release of Windows 10, version 1709, also known as the Fall Creators Update, users will have a dedicated Cortana setting where they can easily find and manage these settings.

Users can also clear all that Cortana knows about them from the Privacy Dashboard.

Microsoft Edge

Microsoft’s new Edge web browser uses cookies to collect information about frequently visited web pages. Some of the default data saved include: your Browsing history; Cookies and saved website data; Cached data and files; and Tabs I’ve set aside or recently closed. Web browsers have been doing this sort of thing for decades; so this is nothing new.

If you want to delete the saved data in one of these options, click the More actions menu (…), scroll down, click Settings > click choose what to clear, then uncheck the options you want to keep. Scroll down then click Clear. You can configure Edge to clear these options each time you close the web browser.

Below that are links to additional settings where you can control what Edge knows about you in the cloud and your Bing search history.

 

Telemetry

Windows Vista was Microsoft’s first start to collecting diagnostics data in a way that could help to improve the quality of the Windows codebase. From BSOD’s to application compatibility, diagnostics help inform both Microsoft and third party hardware and software vendors about problems users are experiencing with their products.

This in return leads to timely fixes and more stable releases. Telemetry has evolved on a much grander scale in recent releases of Windows 10. For example, the Windows 10 Insider Preview program uses diagnostics to help find issues from users who volunteer to share it. Windows 10 with consent, can be configured to send information which includes browser and inking data.

What are your options?

Windows 10 is a web centric operating system and a lot of its innovation depends on how much it knows about you in order to accomplish certain tasks. For example, Apps such as Calendar, Contacts, Tasks and Email work in unison so you can view upcoming events, respond to emails or complete tasks you working on.

If I may be a bit frank, if you are not open to sharing some information, then you really should not be using Windows 10. You could, of course, try using a Local account, but you are delaying the inevitable. Everybody in the industry is doing some form of information collection, but it ultimately boils down to are you aware of it; does the service or application tell you; or give you the option to opt in or out? I think Windows 10 does an admirable job at that between the Privacy setting and the Privacy Dashboard.

I personally found the thought of going through each tab in Windows 10 and disabling specific settings, time-consuming, paranoid and ultimately futile. You are in a sense, crippling the benefits of Windows 10 to further improve the operating system over time. What are the consequences then if you want to go off the grid?

It doesn’t mean the option is not there to have some control over the information stored on the device; it is there and I think that’s probably the best part—you can disable it if you want. What I recommend users do is carefully review what’s web based, versus what’s locally stored on the device. An off the grid option is not really possible but there are some things you can do.

  • Use a Local Account.
  • Browse using an alternative web browser such as Mozilla Firefox.
  • Use the Private Mode option in your favorite web browser.
  • Setup a VPN on your computer so your data is securely transmitted.
  • Switch your search engine to another platform such as Duck Duck Go.
  • Don’t use online cloud services such as Dropbox, Google Drive or OneDrive—instead, you can save your files in a Personal folder.
  • Use an email client such as Mozilla Thunderbird.
  • Use Libre Office for productivity tasks such as word processing, spreadsheets.
  • This is probably the most extreme: switch to a Linux distribution such as Linux Mint.

Conclusion

We want devices to be super smart when it comes to helping us know the world around us, but you can’t expect it to magically do so without volunteering some of your own information. Use your real life as an example—you likely have family and friends who know a great deal about you. Sharing that personal information is part and parcel to your relationship. It’s a similar concept with your “personal” devices. Sometimes, it’s just for us to get over the concept of our devices – otherwise inanimate objects – actually becoming intimate strangers in our lives.


6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. James  

    And – when I recently had problems with Defender and Updating, I set allow sample submissions to ON
    And after the updates that were failing had been done *Setting allow Defender to NOT start being set to ENABLED by the support technician so Defender would NOT start – and thus allow the windows update to function,
    Then the Allow Defender to NOT start needed setting to DISABLED to get Defender to run

    And …. the option slider had gone
    Seems to have been moved to the “Advanced” settings

    So obfuscation is still the watchword for the “Privacy enabling” options.

  2. Robin  

    Not as much as many others i suspect so why start worrying now eh.
    Thw worst one is Google but funnily no one ever moans about them thats probab;y because their name isn’t Microsoft lol.
    Funny old world eh???

  3. Nick  

    Excellent article. Well written so that a nerd such as myself understood it. Thanx a million!

  4. Carlos  

    Is there any software that does the same as a VPN but in the Windows itself and not only in the browser?

    • Thats a good question Carlos. I will have to do some research to find out if there any. A local account is probably the closest. The previous guest account option – which no longer works – was probably the closest.

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