Most of us use the free Gmail email service, which everyone knows sifts through the text of your emails to choose ads to display through DoubleClick or Google’s other advertising platforms. It turns out Microsoft, which launched Windows 10 as a free service, does pretty much the same thing.
It’s all clearly outlined in the Microsoft Privacy statement, which says that Redmond collects data when you “create a Microsoft account, submit a search query to Bing, speak a voice command to Cortana, upload a document to OneDrive, or contact us for support.”
How does it use the data? Just as Google and Apple do: To improve its software and services and to serve you relevant ads and promotions. But Microsoft also claims that it does “not use what you say in email, chat, video calls or voice mail, or your documents, photos or other personal files to target ads to you.” But it does share your personal data “to complete any transaction or provide any service you have requested.” And, as with every other online service, to comply with law enforcement and “to protect lives; to maintain the security of our services; and to protect the rights or property of Microsoft.”
You can opt out of many of the parts of Windows 10 that give Microsoft a way to collect data, but doing so disables some of the operating system’s best new features. You could run a PC without a Microsoft account (something you can’t do on an Apple Mac or Google Chrome OS computer), for example, but then you wouldn’t get syncing with OneDrive or access to the Windows Store of apps. To use a Windows 10 PC without a Microsoft ID, you can use what the OS calls a “local account.” You can make that change in the Settings app’s Accounts page.
If you haven’t installed Windows 10 yet and you’re a privacy maven, don’t choose “express settings” during setup; when you take this route, you’ll get granular privacy choices. You can also go to your Microsoft account’s privacy settings page at account.microsoft.com, where you’ll find options for personalization, apps, marketing, and search privacy. You can set your advertising opt-in options at choice.microsoft.com.
The next thing you can do to prevent sending any personal information to Microsoft is to disable Cortana, the personal voice-responsive digital assistant. When you first set up Windows 10, you’re asked whether you want to use Cortana or not, and you can turn her off at any time. Simply pop up Cortana’s panel, choose the Settings gear, and slide her switch to the off position. The paranoid will also want to switch off the online search capability, too. Note that there’s a link to other privacy settings at the bottom.
But that’s just the start of it. Go to the Settings app’s Privacy page, and you’ll see no fewer than 13 tabs of privacy settings, including those governing use of your location, camera, microphone, speech, inking, typing, account info, contacts, calendar, messaging, radios, devices, feedback, diagnostics, and background apps. Some of the main ones appear on the General page, from which you can prevent Microsoft from collecting browsing and other data.
All of these tabs let you turn off apps’ access to the features named. The Feedback and diagnostics tab does let you control usage info sent to Microsoft; if you don’t want usage info sent, but just system info, choose Basic.
Much has been made of the Wi-Fi Sense capability in Windows 10. This comes from Windows Phone, and gives you a way to share your Internet connection with friends without them having to enter your password. It also lets you log into public Wi-Fi hotspots automatically. If you’re not logged into a Microsoft Account (see above), this is disabled. As the help page on this feature states, “No networks are shared automatically”; you have to specifically share a network you connect to. After this, you can connect to networks shared by Facebook, Outlook.com, or Skype contacts who have also shared their Wi-Fi.
On another protection-related topic, when you upgrade to Windows 10 on a computer that has multiple accounts, you’ll need to re-add any child accounts to your family account, as explained on Microsoft’s Set up family features on Windows 10 page. You can add a child’s email address on the Your family page. From there, you can see activity and block inappropriate websites and apps.
As you can see, you can lock down Windows 10 pretty well, but doing so removes a lot of the operating system’s appeal. If you really want complete privacy, your best bet is not to connect to the Internet or use any technology at all. As Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt once put it, “You have no privacy, get over it!”