Why You Shouldn't Worry About Windows 10 Privacy

  • MORE

Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Windows 10 Privacy

Holy tin foil hat, Batman! If you've been reading the tech news lately, you'd think that Windows 10 was a giant piece of spyware rather than the latest version of the world's most popular PC platform. Now that tens of millions of users have installed the new operating system, some people have noticed that Microsoft collects certain user data and they're freaking out. Slate's David Auerbach calls Windows 10 "a privacy nightmare," while Rock, Paper, Shotgun writes that "Windows 10 is spying on you." Zero Hedge, a conspiracy-focused news site, writes that "big brother is very much here . . . and we invited him into our homes for free."

Should you be concerned? In a word, "no." By default, Windows 10 sends some information about you and your activity to Microsoft, but the data it collects is largely designed to improve your user experience. Better still, if any or all of these features concern you, you can turn them off. Let's take a closer look at what's really going on here.Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Windows 10 Privacy

Microsoft is Collecting Data for Targeted Ads

Each Windows 10 computer is assigned a unique advertising ID so that programs that have ads can provide more targeted marketing messages to you. First of all, this feature is not unique to Windows; most Web advertisers track user activity for the purpose of serving relevant messages later. Ever browse Amazon and then go to an unrelated website and see an ad for the product you were just looking at? With everything they know about you, Facebook and Google are particularly good at reaching you.

advertising ID

Second of all, you want targeted advertising. Turning off your advertising ID only ensures that you get worse ads, not fewer ads. Would you rather see flashing banners for miracle belly fat cures and get-rich-quick schemes, or promotions for a video game you're likely to play or a gadget you might need? Windows 10 does not show you ads, by the way. Individual apps can show ads just as they do on Android and iOS.

Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Windows 10 Privacy

Cortana Knows About You

Microsoft's digital assistant, Cortana, uses data it collects about you to present timely, targeted information. When you click on the search box, Cortana shows you a series of cards with your upcoming appointments, local weather and sports scores. In order to match this information to your lifestyle, the software needs to know your location, access your calendar and gather data about what interests you.

Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Windows 10 Privacy

You can't have a context-aware operating system if you're not willing to provide the context. If you want Cortana to track your flights, it needs to read your email to look for an itinerary message. If you'd like it to "show me all the emails from Mark that I haven't read," it has to see your contact lists to know who Mark is.

Unlike Google Now, which has been doing the same thing for Android users since 2011, Cortana makes it really easy to adjust or delete what it knows about you. You can go directly into the Notebook and set your favorite sports team or decide to delete your location. You can also decline to share any particular type of information (email, calendar, flights) with the assistant. That's pretty granular control.

MORE: Windows 10 Settings You Should Change Right Away

Keyboard, Handwriting and Voice Tracking

In two places within its privacy settings, Windows 10 says that it can collect your handwriting, typing and voice. In the "getting to know you" section of the privacy settings, Microsoft says: "Windows and Cortana can get to know your voice and writing to make better suggestions for you. We'll collect info like contacts, recent calendar events, speech and handwriting patterns and typing history." (Emphasis mine.)

Getting to know you

While the idea of capturing speech and writing sounds bad, this data can help the company improve its next-word prediction, voice interpretation and handwriting recognition for everyone. Also, if you take Microsoft's word (and I will on this point), it doesn't take any personally identifiable information and carefully anonymizes what it does take. In response to my questions about the "getting to know you" feature, the company said:

"Some of this data is stored on your device and some is sent to Microsoft to help improve these services. Data sent to Microsoft for product improvement is put through rigorous, multi-pass scrubs to remove sensitive or identifiable fields (such as email addresses, passwords and alphanumeric data) and strings are chopped into very small bits and stripped of sequence data to prevent the information from being identified or put back together."

Windows Update Shares Bandwidth with Other Computers

When Windows 10 launched, 14 million people downloaded it in the first 24 hours and yet there were no system crashes. I was able to grab it four times in the first day and, in all cases, the 3- to-5GB download took 30 minutes or less. Microsoft achieved this strong performance by distributing the load among its users, in much the same way BitTorrent hosts files across hundreds or thousands of individuals' computers. So, with this system in place, your computer may help send some of Microsoft's Windows update files out to the Internet and you'll benefit from other people doing the same. You can turn this feature off, but it doesn't jeopardize your privacy.

How windows updates are delivered

Microsoft Accounts Sync to the Cloud

From the moment you install it or run it for the first time, Windows 10 wants you to use a Microsoft account as your login. You can set up a "local" account that lives only on the computer, but then you lose the ability to install apps from the Windows Store, among other key functions. By default, the account syncs settings to the cloud so that, if you log into another computer, preferences such as your Start menu, wallpaper, email account settings, calendar and contacts list come with you.

If you ask Cortana to "remind me to clean the toilet when I get home," and you have the digital assistant on your phone, it will tell you to clean the moment you arrive, but that only works if you have a Microsoft account. If you have more than one device in your life -- and who doesn't -- the benefits of using your free Microsoft account are obvious. Google's accounts provide a similar experience syncing your Chrome browser settings between different computers and your phone.

Sync settings

It is a little bit ridiculous that your kids need Microsoft accounts if you want to set them up as "child" users in Windows 10. If you don't want your elementary school student to have email, you can always register the child account yourself or you could give the kid a local account. However, the child accounts have really granular parental controls you won't get elsewhere. Having that account tied to Microsoft allows parents to log in, set restrictions and view a list of every website the kids have visited, every app they've used and what times they were on the computer.

Bottom Line

Yes, by default, Windows 10 sends some information back to Microsoft, but every piece of data it collects provides a tangible benefit to the user. Even collecting data to use in advertising is a user service, because it leads to higher quality ads. To its credit, Microsoft provides a way to turn off any of the data-collecting features, but you'd be better off leaving them in place.

Author Bio
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director on
Add a comment
27 comments
  • Smokie Says:

    I should have just clicked away at the aluminum foil comment followed by pointing out that Windows it the most popular OS on the planet. Very few times has the number 1 of anything made it there through greatness. MS and Google have made themselves necessary but neither are great. Before reading your article, I was slightly concerned about Cortana and privacy and security. Now I am extremely concerned and what else it considered ok when it comes to privacy. Does the worlds largest spyware come complete with tracking beacons as well? What other little surprises are going to surface. Cortana may have some useful features but the good doesn't justify the bad. Congratulations. The title "Why you shouldn't worry about Windows 10 privacy" has addressed my concern and turned it into an all out worry.

  • John S Says:

    Stop drinking the Kool Aid Avram. Not everyone thinks a OS should by default collect so much information. Yes, adding services like Cortana are great, but you should opt in to that service not be subjected to all of this by signing into a Microsoft account. The main argument here is that it's just very difficult for an average user to setup their Windows 10 device to be much more private an share less information. But even if you do set things to less or no sharing. As you point some of it cannot be completely turned off. Even more so in Windows 10 Anniversary Edition. This is very troubling as many countries begin to question these settings too. We all are not tin foil hat wearers.

  • D Preston Says:

    Just because other apps and services invade users’ privacy doesn't work as an argument for why it is now OK for an OPERATING SYSTEM vendor to formalize the process. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves why we are tolerating this type of behavior from any vendor.

    One notable difference though, is that when it comes to my phone, I make phone calls, keep some phone numbers and addresses, play a few games and occasionally access my bank account. On the other hand, as an IT professional, my desktop is where I make a living and I have invested thousands of dollars in hardware and software to perform the duties of my job and to stay current in technology. In my private life, I have also invested a substantial amount of money in hardware and software for recording and producing music.

    The idea that a company like MS thinks that they can lay claim to data from my local PC, choose when and how to update my systems, or how to use the resources that I pay for (my computer’s hardware, memory, disk space and throughput, network and internet bandwidth, etc.) to me is absolutely ludicrous. I cannot afford to let MS, who at best is unaware of my concerns dictate how and when these resources are used. I have already had issues w/ automatic updates causing problems/outages in systems that I manage.

    For example, I’ve had customer’s web sites “revert” to the default IIS homepage because a MS update re-enabled the “Default Web Site” during an update to their web server. I’ve had recording sessions interrupted because Automatic Updates decided to download files and interrupt the recording software’s ability to stream audio to the disk in real-time. And, I’ve had to fight tooth and nail to prevent GWX “nagware” (or Windows 10 itself for that matter) from making its way onto my computer… check the history on this… Microsoft has released and re-released this “patch” under several different KB numbers and has even pushed it through a rarely used back-door that allows them to re-enable windows update service and bypass the user’s settings, even if the service has been disabled through the service manager or the settings have been set to allow the user to choose which updates to install.

    For the last 25 years I've been a software developer using and endorsing MS platforms and tools. I have to say that I am frustrated to the point that I am ready to jump ship. My company has already made the choice to develop several of our latest product offerings using Red Hat OpenStack and Java, and we have even been looking at alternative environments for the desktop.

    Maybe most of your readers are casual users of their computers, and maybe for them these issues are not such a big deal. The point is that the user should be able to control and disable this functionality, and it looks to me like Microsoft has made this difficult or even in some cases impossible to do.

  • Capt America Says:

    Holy M$ shill Batman! I'm not a computer guru, though I know enough and will not be freely letting M$ into my personal files anytime soon. My photos, vids, emails, banking, credit card info, contacts and web sites that I visit are MY personal biz, not M$'s. These days everyone has a smart phone with a camera and when you go into a store you are probably going to see a security camera, that is fine because that is life OUTSIDE of your home and everyone has grown to except it. Social Security numbers, driver license numbers, finger prints, where is the line drawn? The government and big corps wont be happy until everyone has a barcode stamped on them. Edward Snowden blew the lid off whats really going on behind our backs and the only reason people are not freaking out about it is because they have become conditioned to the government invading our privacy. SO many people walking around like zombies with their headphones on and staring for hours at their smartphones. I understand you need to make a living so of course you're going to praise M$, but deep down you know what they're doing is wrong and it's going to go so much worse.

  • anonymous (Privacy and all) Says:

    I would love to have all these features, but MS needs to provide the service locally and not capture the data up to their marketing cloud. Where does MS, Apple or Google get off thinking that they have a right to my personal data on my internal devices. This is COMPLETELY unacceptable and we are all rolling over and allowing it. If I choose to consume a "free" service such as Facebook or Google Docs then the provider has costs and they have to monetize it somehow to support the system. If they collect my data for these services that is legitimate. When I buy and operating system (I know windows 10 was free) or a phone that does not entitle the provider to think they have just become part of my circle of trust and can just help themselves to my data. Google thinks because they own the OS on my phone that they can put bloatware on the phone to harvest all my data and MS feels they can harvest my data from Windows 10. I DEMAND full control over my personal info and I want FULL granular control over who see what when. I will be on Windows 7 until I am forced off of it and if this trend continues, I will sadly be forced to a Linux O/S or some other OS that doesn't snoop and steal my data!!!

  • Dr Greenthumb Says:

    I don't know about you but I took the red pill. Apparently the reason I never heard of this site before right now is because everyone here took the blue pill....

  • BoBOBO Says:

    You call us tinfoil hats cause we worry about our privacy. I don´t need to speak american to my computer, I don´t need all theese crap programs

  • Dave Frandin Says:

    This comment is coming to you in December, after the big November upgrade.. I support several users who *must* use Windows (for some s/w that requires it).. When I installed Windows 10, at their request, I "castrated" all of the known privacy crap, gave the users on the machine local accounts.. Now I find, after the giant November upgrade, a lot of the crap I turned OFF is now ON.. After this, I'm working with the user, at his request, to find a way to allow him to dump Windows 10... It will be my pleasure...

  • Buzzkill Says:

    Lol. No thanks. I'll stick with Linux. I don't need a machine to remind me to clean my toilet, thanks. Nice try, though, Microsuck.

  • Chris Grannis Says:

    Of course the information they collect will be stored pretty much to eternity. And of course they cannot assure it will not be hacked and leaked. So there's that.

  • John S Says:

    My take on Windows 10 is that if you do not have a privacy issue about stuff with the internet. Then Windows 10 is nothing more evil then what Google, Apple, or any social site does. If you dislike fiddling with a OS to turn off all that you don't want to share. Then maybe Windows 10 is a questionable upgrade. Personally I had more basic operational issues that prevented me from liking Win 10. I finally am trying Ubuntu Linux just for something different and see if I can get away from Windows altogether. My problem is Windows 8 and now 10 got away from being just a OS. Now it has to also be a app service and a personal assistant. These days if you don't like Windows you certainly have good options if you choose to try them. Chromebook's, tablets, Mac's are all capable of doing what many people need. Your not stuck running Windows only unless you choose to be stuck.

  • PivateExceptWhenItsNot Says:

    From Techdirt article:

    Microsoft's updated terms also state that it collects things about you, your devices, and app data, as well as information about the networks you connect to. Then there is Microsoft's personal assistant software "Cortana." If you use it, here's what it will gather:

    Your device location, data from your calendar, the apps you use, data from your emails and text messages, who you call, your contacts and how often you interact with them on your device. Cortana also learns about you by collecting data about how you use your device and other Microsoft services, such as your music, alarm settings, whether the lock screen is on, what you view and purchase, your browse and Bing search history, and more.

    And in case you thought that was everything, it also collects:

    Your voice input, as well your name and nickname, your recent calendar events and the names of the people in your appointments, and information about your contacts including names and nickname.

  • Walt Says:

    Sounds like someone drank ALL of the Microsoft Kool-aid

  • John Says:

    Can you please let us know how much you got paid for this article? I hope the pay was good :)

  • Offroad Says:

    You're either completely naive or a paid spokesperson. How about you rewrite the article, but start with this snippet from the TOS: “We will access, disclose and preserve personal data, including your content (such as the content of your emails, other private communications, or files in private folders), when we have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary to protect our customers or enforce the terms governing the use of the services.”

  • Dave Frandin Says:

    I'm a retired Windows/Linux support tech, I have a small business upgrading folks with older systems still on XP to a lightweight Linux distribution (XUbuntu). I've already had several people call me to ask about Windows 10 on the new system they just bought. As of last week I've had one user with such a system ask for me to wipe the Windows 10 and install Linux.. I think I'll be seeing more of these as time goes on unless MS backs off on some of this crap..

  • Paul Zirkle Says:

    Hi Avram,

    I think you've got a well written article with valid points. Here is the point that you seem to miss: there is a large swathe of existing Windows users who don't WANT a context-aware operating system, much less the can of worms that comes with it.

    And it's not a matter of Ludditism.

    Perhaps you could write an article that addresses this?

  • Grouch Says:

    If you handle HIPAA or GLBA-DPPA information, you'd damned well better be concerned about what Win 10 sends to Microsoft or anywhere else. A compromise could put you out of business.

  • Gilliam Says:

    You're right. By sacrificing your privacy, the collective gains something and Microsoft gets a better product. I like the right to make my own choices, and it seems to me like this isn't worth giving up my privacy for. It's not just Microsoft. Definitely no reason to fear them over Google or any other company. But it is a payment of privacy for convenience. We all have to choose to accept the level we're comfortable with.

  • Keith Manning Says:

    Thank you for this article. I understand people being concerned about security but as a tech it's so frustrating trying to ease users fears after reading articles like "Windows 10 Is Spying On You!" It's the same thing every time something new comes out. Instead of educating people they prefer fear mongering. I've met users who are actually afraid to go online due to some of the nonsense they have heard and read. It's unfortunate that so many people buy into this stuff.

  • j Says:

    Why the F would I care about quality of adds that I don't want anyway , what a complete joke this is.

  • Thanks Chicken Says:

    Oh, and we forgot to mention that all the data will be used by the NSA as well. But don't worry, it is for security reasons. :-)

  • Martin Lawliet Says:

    That's nice and all except I don't want it so I turned it all off and I'm using a local account. I don't care for targeted ads because I don't use Windows Store, I don't care for Cortana because I prefer Google Now so for me Microsoft isn't really improving my user experience in anyway that would make me allow them to read my emails etc.

    Google takes my information but in return I get great services like Google Now which for me is worth it. I don't use a Windows Phone either. Basically I want a Windows 7 "local" experience in Windows 10 but wit all the performance, security and UI improvements.

    I did use Windows 8/8.1/10 preview with a Windows account and it was nice. The only thing I ever used was the built in email client because I have so many email accounts. After switching to local account I found an application called PostBox and it does an even better job.

    Definitely right about the privacy issues being exaggerated though, great post.

  • John Says:

    The following article (paid advertisement) was brought to you by a Microsoft paid shill.

    The advice given in this "article" covers only a small percentage of the data collection and keylogging activity. Command line, registry kung fu will also be necessary.

    Any business or public agency where confidentiality is important - government, law, medical, law enforcement, pre-teen schools - just to name a few, should stay clear of the most abusive digital surveillance system ever devised. I smell class-action suits against any business knowingly installing this pOS in-house.

  • Anon Says:

    I'll stick to ad aware and not have any ads they all are bad. I am not impressed with your apologetics. All honesty how in the hell do you know what Microsoft is collecting? Did you write the code?

  • GoodThings2Life Says:

    Wow, what an amazingly intelligent and well-presented article presenting truth and common sense. Thank you!

    I agree with Ben Sunny Isaac, this is fantastic work by Microsoft, and anybody paying attention knows that they beat the competition to the punch here. We get a centralized management point for all these settings before Google or Apple even announced it for their future endeavors, and it's sad to see people grossly misinterpret it as a bad thing.

  • Ben Sunny Isaac Says:

    This is an amazing, well thought and well written article. Unlike a certain person I know who is overly critical about every software company out there, you have given us a reason to not be scared of Microsoft. They're doing their best to make our lives a little better.

Back to top