There’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves for close to a year now: is Windows 10 hot, or not? On Microsoft’s part, they’ve done themselves quite a PR favor by making the upgrade free for a year. That, however, has not been enough for everyone. With shiny new software comes heavy criticism.
Most of that criticism has been focused not on functionality, but on privacy concerns. Windows 10 adds a lot of cool features, including Cortana, mixed integration between Windows 7 and Windows 8 interfaces, a long awaited replacement for the infamous Internet Explorer and face recognition. But what are the costs of these features?
Cortana, Your Digital Pal
Since the days of Star Trek, so many of us have wanted to be able to talk to our computer and tell it what to do. To say “computer, bring up my documents,” is something we’ve waited years to be able to do. Of course, others have beaten Microsoft to it with Google Now and Siri. But both services, especially Google’s, are renowned for their data collecting.
Cortana is not inherently different. She gathers information about where you are, the things you’re looking at online (she can even read your emails to you), your writing and speech patterns and just about everything else. All of this is stored on Cortana’s personalized notebook made especially for you.
Of course, most of these features are to make Cortana more effective at helping you. Learning the dialect you speak helps recognize commands, and learning about where you go helps suggest routes, deals and places to visit. Cortana also naturally has access to your contacts, so she can notify you of messages, invitations and the like. That means your calendars as well.
Honestly, if you aren’t at least a little bothered by now, you’re either really progressive or not paying attention. Cortana pretty much records everything about you. Whether it’s to help you or not, it’s highly invasive.
But there is one great thing about Cortana: she’s optional. Everything about using Cortana is up to you, and you can use Windows 10 entirely without any of her assistance. You can even clear any information she has stored about you from within Windows itself. For as much of an “invasion” she is, Cortana doesn’t force her features down your throat.
One of the main purposes Microsoft has named behind Windows 10 is improving the experience for users by providing a universal platform. That means apps will be developed for the same OS rather than for multiple versions, error reports will be generated all for the same software and Microsoft can focus on pushing out content that everyone can utilize.
For that reason, Microsoft collects diagnostic data from all its users whenever Windows experiences a problem. You can adjust exactly how extensive this data collection is by going to your Settings. I don’t believe this data compromises much, but if it makes you more comfortable, you can set it to Basic.
Some users will find a new experience in Microsoft’s addition of the advertising ID. This is something that gets used across your apps to customize advertisements based on your activities. It is optional, but it definitely involves a bit of data collection to function.
Windows also now contains an option to adjust your content relative to the languages you have installed on your device. In the same tab this is listed under (in the Privacy section), you can also go to Microsoft’s website to adjust how ads are personalized across your browser, Windows and in your Microsoft account.
Much of this data collection is within the normal expectations of users, whether they know it or not. Google, Bing and other search engines already collect an extreme amount of information about user queries, and social media services regularly peddle the data of their users to advertisers.
As strange as it may sound, Microsoft has made the new Windows essentially a file sharing platform very similar to torrents. When you upgrade to Windows 10, you become a candidate to share that upgrade with other users. That means Microsoft is actually using your bandwidth to send data to other users.
If you’re on a limited data plan, this could be a serious issue as it might eat up your bandwidth. It also means the potential for being identified by other users. It may be prudent to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) if you’re concerned, as this will allow you to encrypt your internet connection and remain anonymous.
Of course, you can turn this feature off as well, but it does sort of go against the spirit of file sharing and efficiency to do so. Under the updates section (advanced), you can choose how updates are delivered and turn off file sharing.
The Big Unknown
In spite of everything, very little is known about exactly what Microsoft is doing with its gigantic cache of data. Their official policy states that they don’t share this information outside of Microsoft subsidiaries or mergers. But that doesn’t include diagnostic data, which is shared in some cases with third party app developers to provide information about performance and problems.
Microsoft also complies with legal requests to submit data when issued a court order. Beyond that, no one save Microsoft insiders know what they’re doing with the collected data. They have claimed it isn’t sold in the same way other providers tend to sell personal information, but that remains to be proven.
With some degree of certainty, we do know Microsoft is monitoring quite a bit. They recently released statistics from 2015 since the introduction of Windows 10, which contains a startling amount of information about users behaviors and the amount of time spent on varying activities. Only time will tell if this is a problem or not.
Be Aware, Not Afraid
One user to another, Microsoft isn’t really much different than the next corporation. Their goal isn’t some evil scheme to take over the world—it’s to make money. To some extent, that means providing quality service, but increasingly it also means monetizing their customers to the maximum extent.
It may be that as consumers we need to get used to selling a certain amount of privacy in order to receive more customized service. Just remember that your wallet is what does the voting. If you don’t like what Microsoft or other companies are doing, don’t give them your money. It’s the only way they’ll hear you.