Is Windows 10 Really a Privacy Nightmare?

Last summer Microsoft released its Windows 10 operating system. The release came free of charge which immediately resulted in the emergence of theories speculating the motivation behind the software giant’s actions.

 

Some speculated that Microsoft made this move because it planned to use the OS to “spy” on its users.  Windows 10 privacy settings are spread across 12 sections in the OS. That complexity, as well as some arguably vague language contained within Microsoft’s 45 page privacy agreement, only helped to fuel these rumors.

 

Windows 10 offers more customization than any previous version of Windows. Personalized services require the collection of personal data. Microsoft primarily uses the data it collects to improve its products and services to better align with how individuals use their technology.  In the interest of space, I will not cover all of Windows 10 privacy features in this column. Below are the three features that you should be familiar with.

 

Speech, Inking and Typing Settings

 

The first setting that captured my attention upon my initial review of Windows 10 was the option to “Send Microsoft info about how I write.” I immediately thought of keyloggers and wondered what Microsoft would do with my recorded keystrokes. After a bit of research I learned that this feature is not a keylogger but rather a text analysis engine. The service was designed to help Microsoft improve the operating system’s ability to correctly recognize speech and handwriting inputs for users who use dictation or handwriting as input methods.

 

Microsoft released the following statement about the feature following confusion over its purpose: Microsoft does not collect any personal information via inking or typing. It is gathered for product improvement purposes, for example, to improve the handwriting visual translation engine, or to improve the user dictionary, language library and spell check functions in Windows. The data is put through rigorous, multi-pass scrubs to ensure it does not collect sensitive or identifiable fields (e.g., no email addresses, passwords, alpha-numerical data, etc.). Data is also chopped into very small bits and stripped of sequence data so it cannot be put back together or identified. The data samplings collected are limited; Microsoft is not capturing everything you write, nor is it capturing data every time.”

 

If you are sensitive about “even small bits” of your information being shared with Microsoft, you have the option of disabling this feature. Here are instructions explaining how to do that. 

 

Wi-Fi Sense

 

Wi‑Fi Sense is a feature that automatically connects your computer to Wi‑Fi networks around you in order to get your computer online more quickly as you move about.  Wi-Fi Sense will automatically connect you to public hotspots that other Windows users have connected to. It will also automatically connect you to networks your Facebook friends, Outlook.com contacts or Skype contacts have shared with you.

 

The idea of automatically sharing your Wi-Fi network with all of your contacts may rightfully cause you some concern. It’s important to understand what this means. Your contacts can only access your Wi-Fi network when in range of it. Because you authorize permission from your account, you aren’t sharing your password. If you ever provide Wi-Fi access to your contacts, doing so through Wi-Fi Sense is actually more secure than outright giving them your password that they could, in turn, share with others.  You may revoke permission to your network at any time.  I do advise you to be very careful with activities you conduct on Wi-Fi networks that aren’t your own. You should consider all connections that are open to the public to be insecure. Do not use them to conduct business that is sensitive in nature (such as online banking or activities involving credit cards.)  Frequently asked questions about Wi-Fi Sense can be reviewed here.

 

Windows Update Delivery Optimization

In the past, users had control over how Windows Updates were downloaded and installed. Windows 10 updates automatically download and install when they are available. To streamline this process, Microsoft uses a service called “Windows Update Delivery Optimization” (WUDO) which, by default, turns your computer into a peer-to-peer node to help it distribute its updates.   This feature can pose problems for some users. If you have a slow internet connection, allowing your computer to be used as a peer to peer node will slow your connection further. If you have a metered connection (such as satellite internet service), WUDO can cost you money as it will consume data on your plan. While WUDO can speed up your ability to download updates you do not have, the downside is that you eventually return the favor to other users by allowing them to use your bandwidth to pull the updates to them. Click here for more information on how WUDO works (including how to disable the feature).

 

These are just three of many privacy features new to Windows 10. The good news is that you have the ability to turn off Microsoft’s data collection services in order to control what data and personal information you voluntarily share with Microsoft. If you disable these services, however, you will sacrifice some of the benefits of some of Windows 10’s new features. Before altering settings, I recommend you become familiar with what each of the privacy settings actually do so that you can make an informed decision about whether or not to disable them.  Here is an excellent article that provides an introduction to them all.

2 Comments

  1. Jason says:

    The big risk Wi-Fi Sense poses is for businesses. Some people manage Facebook pages as part of their job (marketing, sales, etc.) and they will likely check their personal pages during the day. Put these people on a wireless computer at the office and suddenly all of their friends have access to the company’s internal wireless network (yes, they have to be in range). Or consider the situation for a company with a BYOD policy. Or vendors whose job is on-site service whose employees access Facebook on their lunch breaks (how many internal networks do they have access to?). Depending on which Windows 10 updates you have installed, companies can disable Wi-Fi Sense through Group Policy or a registry entry. Vendors are a little more difficult to address but asking politely, and explaining the issue, goes a long way.

    • Amy Clevidence says:

      Great feedback, Jason! I agree it is very important that individuals understand whose WI-FI source they are enabling for sharing when they choose to enable WI-FI Sense on their personal devices. A private, corporate owned WI-FI source is one that should never be shared with individuals outside their business organization.

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