Microsoft’s recently unveiled OS, Windows 10, is the company’s make-or-break version of what is the most used OS franchise in the world. Reviews of it are pretty good up till now, with Techradar saying “Feature-wise, Windows 10 is the new Windows 7. It’s robust, pleasant to use and free,” and PcAdvisor naming it “[…] the best Windows OS yet. Windows 10 is free for most people and offers plenty of new features and apps.”
There is a hook, though – it may send over some private information to Windows.
Windows 10 and information sharing
Windows 10, by default, has permission to report a huge amount of data back to Microsoft. By clicking through “Express Settings” during installation, you allow Windows 10 to gather up your contacts, calendar details, text and touch input, location data, and a whole lot more. The OS then sends it all back to Microsoft so that it can be used for personalisation and targeted ads.
This isn’t exactly unusual. More recent versions of the Windows family, unless explicitly told not to, share some kind of personal information with Microsoft’s main servers. Windows 10 definitely goes one (or quite a few more, actually) step further though, primarily thanks to Cortana (which ideally needs to be personalised/optimised based on your voice inputs, calendar, contacts, etc.) and other “cloudy” features that somewhat necessitate the collection and squirting of personal data back to Microsoft.
It’s not a deal-breaker. The information shared by Windows does help make your experience with the OS that more fluid and more relevant. However, if you’re (like me) not that bit a fan of sharing parts of your life with Microsoft, here’s a few steps you can take to dam the flow of data back to them.
Just be warned that there are quite a few toggles that need to be turned off, and you’ll lose some functionality as well (Cortana won’t work, for example). You win some you loose some, as the saying goes.
Nip it in the bud
The easiest and fastest way to turn off Windows 10’s eavesdropping privileges (various data logging, personalisation, and telemetry functions) is to turn them off during the installation or update process.
During installation, do not press “Use Express settings” but opt for the “Customise settings” button. The first customisation page has settings for personalisation, targeted advertising, and location tracking. If you’re trying to maximise your privacy, go ahead and disable everything on this first page.
This second page has a somewhat useful option at the top, but the others—predictive Web browsing, connecting to open Wi-Fi hot spots, and Wi-Fi Sense—can be turned off.
Another way of sharing less data with Microsoft is to use a local account rather than log in with a Microsoft account. The “Create a new account” and “Sign in without a Microsoft account” buttons are your best two friends for this and you should click on them with confidence. Keep in mind that this will prevent any of your settings/data from automatically propagating to any other Windows devices that you own.
The next steps need to be done from within a fully installed Windows 10 system.
Head to the new Settings app and click the Privacy button. You can toggle all of these settings to “Off,” though you may choose to keep SmartScreen Filter enabled. Most of these may already be disabled if you turned everything off during installation.
At the bottom of the Privacy applet, click Feedback. From here, you can set the Feedback frequency to “never,” which may prevent Windows 10 from reporting some data back to Microsoft. Note, however, that “Feedback options” cannot currently be disabled; it can only be set to “basic.”
Disable agent Cortana
Hit the Start button. Type a few letters and the Start screen will be replaced by a grey search window. Click the cog icon to reveal Cortana’s settings pane (pictured right) and then triumphantly slay her by flipping the toggle to “Off.” If you’d rather keep Cortana turned on but with some of her other abilities curtailed, they can be configured here as well.
That should be about it: you are now reporting very little data back to Microsoft.
We’ve showed you how you can make your Windows 10 experience more private, but the question you have to ask yourself is if the gain in privacy is justified, given the loss in funtionality? For some it will be, for others it will be not. Disabling personalisation definitely makes sense from a privacy perspective, but it could significantly dent voice recognition accuracy and the usefulness of certain OS features like Cortana. On the other hand, there aren’t many good reasons for keeping your advertising tracker ID turned on.
And even though this guide will mostly stop Windows 10 from sending personal data back to Microsoft, there are still a few other mechanisms and services that continue to report back unless you dig into the registry and group policy editor.
But, you should now have a rough idea of how best to protect your data, and choose what you share of it to the guys at Microsoft.