I think it is fair to say that Windows 10 has been very well received by critics and audience alike but there are some major criticisms of the operating system that Microsoft has failed to address thus far. One of the most controversial aspects of the new OS is how it handles privacy. Windows 10 comes with a lot of new features that constantly retrieve information and most of them are enabled by default. And while some users would not care either way, the majority of people who use Windows 10 have no idea about the privacy implications of the operating system.
Being on Windows 10 does not mean you will be constantly bombarded by attacks on your privacy but only if you are willing to spend some time configuring the settings manually. In this post, we are going to dig deep into the Windows 10 privacy settings so that you know what you are dealing with. The privacy/feature richness ratios are like a punishment/reward scheme that you can only deal with once you actually understand it.
Basic Windows 10 privacy
Before we delve into the individual privacy settings, there are some things about the “Windows 10 experience” that every user should know about. Most of these apply to all users, meaning there is little difference between Microsoft and Local accounts. For more detailed information about user accounts in Windows 10, check out our post here.
And here are the key things you should know about:
- Each Windows 10 user has a unique advertising ID that is used by Microsoft to deliver personalized ads to you.
- On that note, telemetry data is automatically collected by Microsoft and you cannot block everything by default. This means that the company retrieves anonymous data about your installed software, your settings, your network and more.
- Your typing, speech and other similar information is sent to Microsoft’s servers so that you can get personalized results, spelling corrections and more. While the data is linked to your account, Microsoft says that it does not actually look into it manually.
- Several Windows services and apps require access to your location in order to operate properly, including Cortana.
- If you are using a Microsoft account, Windows 10 will automatically sync your settings, apps, web history, passwords and more so that you can instantly set up a new computer that will look more or less like your current environment. More information on that can be found in the link above.
Privacy – General
To access the privacy settings we are going to be talking about from now on, go to Settings > Privacy. The settings menu can be accessed by pressing the WinKey + I combination and from a variety of different utilities including the Action Center and Start Menu.
The General tab deals with the broader changes that Windows 10 has brought. This menu will let you manage your advertising ID, the SmartScreen Filter, the typing data you send to Microsoft and whether you want websites to provide you with information relevant to your country by accessing your language list. The “Manage my Microsoft advertising and other personalization info” link will take you to a Microsoft website where you can read the privacy statement and manage the personalized ads delivered by Microsoft and other companies. The only thing I would like to note here is that even if you disable the typing data on this menu, Microsoft will get it from elsewhere provided that you use Cortana. But more on that later.
The most important thing to understand about these settings is that you cannot use Cortana if you disable the location services. There is no way to get around this so if you want to take advantage of Microsoft’s personal assistant, Location must be turned on. However, you can block every other app from having access to your location so that Cortana is the only service that can access it.
The first setting you see in this menu will let you turn Location off for every single user in your computer. I would suggest leaving this setting on and allowing each user to handle the Location settings manually but that is up to you. The second option is about the current user only. Note the small description that says an icon will appear whenever an app is using your location. The icon it mentions appears in your system tray (bottom right corner) briefly each time a service requests your current location. In theory, anyway.
The Location History menu explains that apps and services that use your location store that data in your PC temporarily. The data is deleted when the services are done or when your computer is restarted but you can manually clear the history on the device too. Note that this does not disable the service, it merely gets rid of the temporary data stored in your computer. The link below will take you to a detailed Microsoft FAQ that explains how apps and services use your location and what you can do about it.
Scrolling down you will find a list of apps that can use your location along with toggles to disable them. As you will notice here, the toggle for Cortana is greyed out because as I explained earlier, Cortana does not work without your location and if you want to block its access you will need to disable the location services in their entirety. Another thing you might notice here is that the apps in on the list are all Microsoft ones because location settings for third-party apps are handled individually.
Finally, the geofencing item will explain that in order to disable the virtual barrier you will need to turn off location for apps that use it. I am not sure why Microsoft felt the need to include it as a separate privacy item because the virtual boundary features are vital to many services anyway. Of course, informing Windows 10 users about it cannot really hurt.
Speech, inking & typing
And now we have arrived at what truly makes Cortana such a controversial aspect of Windows 10. Aside from the fact that the personal assistant requires permissions to use your location at all times, it also uses a new feature that Microsoft has dubbed “Getting to know you”. With this feature enabled, Microsoft will collect all kinds of information about you like contacts, calendar events, data on how you speak and write and more.
Before we start getting too paranoid, the truth is that every single personal assistant requires the exact kind of information in order to operate. How else will Cortana be able to call your Skype contacts without access to them? Or offer you instant reminders without access to your calendar? Of course, one could argue that Microsoft could provide individual options for each of Cortana’s features but you should also keep in mind that the feature is completely optional and you can opt out of it at any time. If you want more information on the “Getting to know you” feature and how Microsoft uses your personal information, click on the links in this menu and make sure you read them thoroughly.
Camera, Microphone, Account info, Contacts, Calendar, Messaging, Radios
The title of this group looks intimidating but each of these entries are incredibly simple as far as privacy settings go. These items handle individual settings that can be controlled by a nuke-it-all toggle as well as by individual app controls. So you may want to let Microsoft Edge use your camera for your online chats but disable access to OneNote because you never use its capturing features. There is not much to explain here but if you have a question about any of these items, drop a comment down below and I will get back to you as soon as possible.
Windows 10 was designed to be future-proof and this menu will give you a small glimpse of that. The settings here will allow Windows 10 to communicate with external devices such as Bluetooth and wireless beacons, consoles like the Xbox One, TVs and more. If you are not currently using such a device then I would suggest turning the feature off and only enabling it when and if you want to take advantage of it. The same goes for the trusted devices field.
Feedback & diagnostics
This has already proven to be one of the most controversial aspects of Windows 10 as Microsoft has more or less made diagnostic and usage data mandatory. The “Feedback frequency” menu will let you choose whether or not you want to allow Windows to ask you for feedback. If you do not want to bother with it at all then you can select the “Never” option though I would recommend choosing the “Automatically” option as the Windows 10 team actually takes user input into account when dealing with features for the OS.
The “Diagnostic and usage data” menu is another thing entirely. There is no way to disable the feature so no matter what option you choose, some diagnostic and usage data will be sent to Microsoft from your device. To keep that data to a bare minimum, select the Basic option. Microsoft says that the Basic option may result in some Windows 10 apps and features not working properly but I personally want to take my chances with that. And while Microsoft does not allow you to change this setting by default, the tools I will talk about at the end of this post will let you circumvent these restrictions with ease.
This menu will list every single Windows 10 app that can run in the background so that they can receive information, stay updated and send you notifications even when you are not actively using them. Turning these off can help with preserving your battery’s life though their impact is quite small. Still, if you are not using some of these apps you may as well disable them from this menu anyway.
Apps that let you configure privacy and security settings in Windows 10
If there is one thing that you should take away from this post it is that Microsoft has made some unsavory, anti-privacy decisions in Windows 10. Whether their intent is actually harmful or not is a huge discussion that we are not going to have right now but the main thing is that Microsoft has intentionally blocked access to many privacy and security related settings in a time where user choice should be the top priority of companies with the range of Microsoft. Thankfully, independent developers have already found ways to bypass these restrictions and as a result we have two fantastic apps that can easily help you configure security and privacy settings.
The apps in question are O&O’s ShutUp10 and pXc-coding’s DoNotSpy. The two apps are almost the same and they will let you configure a huge variety of options and will also allow you to quickly disable Windows 10 services such as OneDrive with one click. I would recommend ShutUp10 if you actually want to read more about each setting as clicking on them will give you a brief description on what they are used for. With that said, both of them are fantastic tools and every Windows 10 user should take the time to go through them at least once. Do consider creating a system restore point (either manually or via the apps) before you change any system settings though because there is not telling how they will affect your Windows 10.