The dramatic changes in Windows 8 created a great deal of controversy. Windows 10, though, is an increasingly popular operating system. The newest version now powers almost 35% of all PCs and that number grows each year. Computer users are growing savvy about privacy issues and Microsoft has taken notice. Microsoft is attempting to be more transparent about changes you can make to protect your privacy in the operating system.
Why Windows Is a Privacy Disaster
From the beginning, Windows 10 has caused concern among privacy experts. By default, Windows records every keystroke and mark you make on a device running Windows 10. If a coworker put that kind of software on your computer, you would likely feel violated and angry. It is only with a recent update that Windows has even made it possible for you to turn this setting off.
Windows also tracks your location across all devices you use Windows 10 on by default, like a private investigator tailing you at all times. If you have a Windows tablet, phone, or other portable device with you, Windows knows where you are. From the doctor’s office to the grocery store, to work and at home, Windows knows where you are and keeps track. This is a gold mine of information for advertisers. Location data give advertisers access to the stores you prefer to shop at, the neighborhood you live in, and so much more.
Cortana Is Listening
One of the big additions to Windows in the past few years has been the Cortana virtual assistant. This system can answer questions about the weather, traffic, or what the definition of “intrusive” is. To use Cortana, you must agree to allow Windows 10 to “get to know you.” This allows Cortana to read every keystroke and every handwritten note made on your device. Cortana can also listen to your voice and analyze your speech. Turning off this feature will disable Cortana but restore a great measure of privacy to your Windows usage. Let’s see how we can turn Cortana off.
From the start menu, click the ‘gear’ icon for Settings.
From here, look for the padlock shaped icon for ‘Privacy’ and click that.
This is the Windows 10 Privacy screen. We’ll be looking at a few settings you might consider changing on here. In the meantime, look over on the left-hand column under ‘Windows permissions’ and click on ‘Speech, inking, & typing”.
This is the ‘Getting to know you” screen that explains how Cortana uses and collects this information. The vague statement assures you that the local dictionary helps “make better suggestions for you.” This weak assurance is not enough to convince many to surrender their privacy. Click on the box labeled, “Turn off speech services and typing suggestions.” A pop up will warn you that doing so will disable Cortana. Click ‘OK’ to accept and Cortana will no longer be able to track everything you do on Windows.
Stop Windows from Following Your Every Move
Location settings are some of the most intrusive invasions of your privacy. Other privacy intrusions track your activity online, location data even tracks you offline. Location services gives Windows 10 access to information about what you do when you aren’t using your computer. Visit a gynecologist in a new, regular pattern and Microsoft can analyze the information to predict you are pregnant. Microsoft may know about your pregnancy before you tell even those closest to you. Securing your location settings can be one of the most important privacy steps you can take. Let’s dive in an see how we can adjust our location settings in Windows.
Back on the Settings screen, look under the app permissions for ‘Location’ as highlighted above.
Turn off location settings here. Under ‘Location service’ click on the slider to toggle location settings off. You should note that at the top of the screen is a warning that each person using this device can have their own location settings. If you allow someone else to access your device, Windows may continue tracking that user.
Further down the screen you can see ‘Location history’. By clicking on the ‘Clear’ button, you can clear your location history from this device. This feature will only clear the data from your device, not from the Microsoft servers.
Still further down, you can select individual apps that use location services. You may choose to disable individual apps you want to restrict access to your location. To restrict individual apps, you will need to go through the list and turn off each one you want to restrict. Some apps, including Cortana, will not work without access to your location.
Setting Your Ad Preferences
Microsoft has joined the crowd of software providers who widen their income stream by selling targeted advertising. To do so, Microsoft must develop detailed profiles of your interests and activities. Advertisers will pay more to target ads to groups of people who are likely to buy their products. Microsoft applies an advertising ID to each user. This helps to track your interests based on what you do on your computer and online. Microsoft uses this data to build a profile of you that can be sold to advertisers..
On the Settings screen, you will find the ad options as highlighted above. Microsoft makes it seem like leaving this setting on will benefit you. They present it as a way for you to see only relevant ads. If you prefer to maintain greater privacy, though, click the slider to turn off targeted ads. You will still see ads, but advertisers will not be able to target your profile.
Microsoft Is Still Tracking Your Keystrokes
Earlier, we altered privacy settings earlier to stop Cortana from monitoring your keystrokes. You couldn’t be faulted for believing this stops Microsoft from logging your every keystroke. That’s not the case. That setting only stops your keystrokes from being logged for Cortana. Microsoft continues to log keystrokes for all other Windows 10 services. You can find the setting for the keystroke logging still enabled under ‘Diagnostics & feedback’.
In the privacy settings screen, click on ‘Diagnostics & feedback’. It is listed under ‘Windows permissions’ as shown above.
If you didn’t intuitively grasp that ‘Diagnostics & feedback’ would contain key privacy settings, you aren’t alone. But some of the most critical settings reside under this oddly confusing name. Near the center of the screen you will see ‘Improve inking & typing recognition’. Here you will see the same tracking of keyboard or drawing data being tracked as was earlier seen under ‘Speech, inking, & typing’. It is unusual and confusing to have seemingly the same setting under two different menus that aren’t linked.
You will find that this setting remains turned on even if you have turned off the setting in the other menu. Click on the slider to turn this setting off for Windows 10. This should prevent Windows from tracking inputs on your device whether from your keyboard or a touch screen.
Under the diagnostic data, you will see that by default, the ‘Full’ option is selected. This sends both critical diagnostic data on your device and data about the websites you visit. Both the ‘Full’ and the ‘Basic’ options emphasize that there is no impact on the security or functionality of your device no matter which you choose. The only change is whether you volunteer to give Microsoft data about the websites you visit. Select the ‘Basic’ option to restrict this access.
Find the ‘Tailored experiences’ setting near the bottom of this screen. This allows Microsoft to customize Windows 10 based on the diagnostic data you choose to share with the company. This includes targeted ads based on how you use the device. More specifically, ads based on the websites you visit as monitored under the ‘Full’ setting for sharing diagnostic data. This targeted advertising remains in place even if you turned off targeted ads in the previous privacy screen. Simply click the slider to turn this setting off here for Microsoft.
Taking Privacy Seriously
It sounds useful to have the ads you see be more relevant. The cost to your privacy isn’t always so obvious, though. Restricting your privacy settings can make a big difference in keeping your personal data private. Even after taking these steps, you may still have concerns. You may worry that Windows 10 and other apps on your device are still collecting your personal information. There is a simple step you can take to dramatically increase your privacy: use a VPN.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) helps make your use of connected devices more anonymous. Instead of connecting directly to the internet, you connect through the VPN router which may be miles away from you. This allows you to be online without giving away too much information about yourself.