In the scant three weeks since Windows 10 was released, it’s already being hailed as the greatest operating system ever created. Oh also, it’s being called the most intrusive, data-hungry operating system ever created. Just trying to wade through all the tech blogs and mags to get to the real crux of what Windows 10 means in terms of privacy can be maddening. That’s why we are here to help you make an educated decision about Windows 10, your privacy and whether or not you should upgrade.
First thing first – It’s important to know that eventually you will have to upgrade to Windows 10. According to the folks at Microsoft, in 2020 they will stop supporting Windows 7. Windows 8 has a bit longer of a shelf life, with it’s official end coming in 2023. This may seem like a lifetime away in tech years, but what’s more important than the official kill dates is that before 2020 and 2023 both Windows 7 and 8 will experience less and less support from Microsoft as their end dates approach. True, it’s likely that you will have already upgraded to a new device with Windows 10 pre-installed by the time those dates roll around, but that further proves the point that sometime in the not so distant future, you will either buy a new PC with Windows 10 as the operating system or you will have to upgrade to remain supported.
What Windows 10 Means in Terms of Your Privacy
All this means that it’s worth it to understand the implications of Windows 10 when it comes to privacy. Microsoft has said of Windows 10 on their blog that “we’re actively addressing modern security threats with advancements to strengthen identity protection and access control, information protection, and threat resistance.” It would seem that Windows 10 would be the answer to many common security woes but the problem is that while the operating system does certainly address the current “bait and hack” environment that the internet has evolved into, it brings along a fair amount of its own less-than-privacy-friendly issues that need to be dealt with.
One of the most troubling privacy-inhibiting features of the new OS is what team Microsoft has dubbed WiFi Sense. This feature allows people to automatically log on to other people’s WiFi connections from their devices while on-the-go. Microsoft markets this as a great thing – it makes it easier for people to stay connected to the internet at all times without the need to share passwords with other people looking to use your connection. It’s done automatically and all information is encrypted and only allows access to the connection but not any information therein. The thing is that this creates a vulnerability, one that could have easily not been introduced. It’s probably just a matter of time before hackers take the opportunity to figure out how to exploit this flaw, erm, feature.
There is a way around it though – To turn off and opt-out of WiFi Sense, go to Settings > Network & Internet > Wi-Fi > Manage Wi-Fi settings. Then opt-out of everything there. Also make sure to configure the settings to not remember any WiFi networks you may have signed into in the past. This makes it so that you can’t use other people’s WiFi networks. To block your own from being used by others is a bit trickier but it can be done. You’ll need to go into your router’s settings and change your network’s name to whatever it is with the addition of _optout at the end. So if your WiFi Network is called nothing2seeheresorry_optout, other people won’t be able to use your connection.
Then there is Cortana. Cortana is Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s SIRI or Iron Man’s J.A.R.V.I.S., your personal virtual assistant for searches, scheduling, and reminders (and possibly saving the world). Cortana is a super-useful addition to Windows 10, but in order to do her job properly, she collects a truckload of information about her users, including location, voice and handwriting patterns, and contacts. It’s all stored in the Microsoft cloud where it gets vegamixed together into a slightly creepy “Wait a minute… How did you know I collect beanie babies?” experience.
You can lower the creepy factor by going into your privacy settings in your Bing account. Under “interests” simply clear all data stored there as well as all the data in the “Speech, Inking and Typing” option. Or if Cortana is over-all too data hungry for your liking, you can easily disable her for good – Just open Cortana and go to the notebook icon. There will be a bunch of options shown. Go to the one that says “ Cortana can give you suggestions, ideas, reminders, alerts and more” and slide to button to the “off” position. This will stop Cortana in her tracks. But you’re not quite off the hook yet. Now you have to disable the “Getting to Know You” setting. Just go to Settings > Privacy > Speech, Inking, & Typing. There is a feature called “Getting to Know You” – turn it off to stop logging your typing history, voice recordings and contacts.
General Privacy Settings
One of the most basic things you can do to maintain your privacy in Windows 10 is to customize your privacy settings. To do this, go to the Settings app > Privacy > General. This is where you can decide whether or not to allow personalized ads to be shown, and to let locally relevant information on websites be displayed. You can easily disable both these options without incurring any real change to your browsing experience. Then there is the “Send Microsoft info about how I write” setting which Microsoft purportedly uses to predict what you will say and write. Again if this concerns you, it can be turned off.
In Windows 10 Home Edition users can no longer push-off Windows updates ad-infinitum as many people like to do. There is a workaround if you really want to be in control of updates, though. You can set your connection as “metered”, in other words, tell Microsoft that this is a connection that is tethered to a mobile connection (even though it’s not, as it doesn’t have any real implications.) Windows doesn’t load updates automatically onto mobile connections. Once you enable this you will see the message “Updates are available. We’ll download the updates as soon as you connect to Wi-Fi, or you can download the updates using your data connection.” Now you can download updates as you wish.
The truth is that this new update change is probably a good thing, though. Windows updates are one of the most important and misunderstood aspects of staying secure on the web. So maybe just this once let the privacy control freak in you take a step down and trust Microsoft here by allowing updates to download asap.
Read the Terms of Service
Are you still thinking “Okay so big deal, I’ll just read the silly Terms of Service and then I’ll know exactly what I’m in for with regard to my privacy”?
Well, it’s not quite that simple, especially considering that the Terms of Service are 12000 words long. No joke, you may want to set aside a whole afternoon to make sure you read it and understand what you are signing up for, considering all that’s involved. The Terms of Service allow you to opt-out from almost all hyper-invasive features included in Windows 10 – but note that we said “opt-out”. Microsoft has taken the liberty to assume you want to phone home your information all the time. You also need to understand that in opting-out of all these features you lose a lot of functionality. So give the Terms of Service the careful reading they and you deserve and consider their implications.
One last bit of information that is important to note is that if you think Microsoft is alone in the scope of the data it’s collecting, think again. Though Windows 10 is chock-full of privacy-invading features, it’s not at all dissimilar to all the information we hand over to social media networks or Google on a regular basis. Think about this – Google knows not only your location, but all your searches, (including the ones you wish no one knew about) and your location, date of birth and TONS more. In a sense, it’s commendable that Microsoft is allowing users to opt-out.
We say to go for it and upgrade. Windows 10 is a great operating system with lots of fun and useful features and anyway, there is really no way out of it unless you defect to OS X or Linux. So take the plunge and upgrade, but do so with caution. After all, it’s your privacy that’s at stake here.