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How to Keep Windows 10 From 'Spying' on You

Dan Tynan
Yahoo Tech

(Photo: Thinkstock)

Despite what you may have read, Windows 10 is not spying on everything you do. So feel free to remove your tin-foil beanie.

However, Windows 10 could potentially collect a ton of data about you — probably more personal information than any operating system in history. That’s due largely to Cortana, Win10’s built-in personal digital assistant, which collects such information to better serve you. But Windows 10 also collects information to make other aspects of your computing experience more personal.

Related: Inside Windows Cortana: The Most Human AI Ever Built

The good news: If that data collection creeps you out, you can turn off all or any of it with a few clicks. It’s not hard, though some of the settings can be confusing or difficult to find.

Here’s a quick guide to the most important privacy controls in Windows 10 — whether you should worry about them and how to tweak them. (Note: You may need to log in as an administrator to make some of these changes.)

How to go private in Windows 10

It all starts with the Settings. If you’ve got a tablet or touchscreen laptop, tap the right side of the screen and swipe toward the left to call up the Action Center, then choose All Settings.

On a traditional desktop or laptop, click the Windows Start button and select Settings.

From the Settings menu, you want to click or tap the Privacy icon.

General

Here’s the first thing you see when you tap the Privacy icon:

Confused? Join the club. Microsoft has chosen to lead with some of its most obscure settings, all of which are on by default. Here they are:

Advertising ID: This is a unique number that identifies you to advertisers inside Windows apps so they can personalize the ads you see — similar to the way tracking cookies help deliver targeted ads on the Web. Microsoft says it does not associate this unique number with your name, email address, or any other personal information.

Don’t want personalized ads inside apps? Turn it off by sliding the button to Off. (That’s what I would do.) When you do that, the data associated with the ID number is erased. 

SmartScreen filters: This is supposed to keep Windows Store apps from sending you to nasty Web sites that could potentially infect your machine. Unless you enjoy living dangerously, there is no good reason to turn this off.

Typing and writing:  No, Microsoft is not looking to steal your Oscar-winning screenplay or the secret recipe for Flubber. It wants to capture information about how you write or type so it can improve the accuracy of its handwriting recognition and autocomplete suggestions. Microsoft ignores personally identifiable information, collects the data randomly, and slices it up into tiny bits that can’t be reassembled.

I don’t see a good reason to turn this off, but it probably won’t hurt if you do; your paranoia level may vary.

Locally relevant content:  Another weird setting — this one tells your browser to customize your search results if you have selected a language other than English. Unless you’re a Russian agent operating under deep cover and you’re convinced the NSA has tapped your laptop, I can’t see any reason to turn this off. 

Finally, there’s the Web link titled “Manage my Microsoft advertising and other personalization info.” Clicking that takes you to a site where you can control whether advertisers will show you ads based on your browsing history and interests.

Click the purple Choose box to decide whether you want the Microsoft Edge browser to show you targeted ads, and whether you want to see such ads on other devices you log into using your Windows account. The default setting is on, but I always turn these things off, because nobody really knows where all that data will end up or what it might ultimately be used for.

The other boxes offer information on how to opt out of other personalized ads via the Digital Advertising Alliance site, and a condensed version of Microsoft’s voluminous privacy policy.

Location

Location in Windows 10 is turned on by default. The main reason is Cortana, who needs to know where you are so she can make suggestions about local restaurants, give you weather reports, bail you out of jail, etc.

If you’d rather not have Cortana all up in your business, you can turn off location globally by clicking or tapping the gray Change button, then moving the slider to Off. Doing this essentially disables Cortana; the next time you try to ask her a question, she’ll demand that you turn location tracking back on. 

You can also leave location on for Cortana but turn it off for other apps and services by changing the second slider to off.

Microsoft gives you a third option, which is to selectively turn location on for standard Windows Store apps like email, the Edge browser, Search, and Maps. These are turned off by default. As you add apps that use location data, they will appear on this list so that you can turn them on or off as well.

My advice: If you’re using Windows 10 on a phone or tablet, location makes sense: You want your mapping app to know where you are so it can give you directions, and you might even want to get ads for local businesses. It kinda makes sense on a laptop, if you spend a lot of time hopping between Internet hot spots. It makes little sense on a machine that doesn’t move much, like your desktop, but you might want to turn it on for Maps and Search.

Speech, inking and typing

This is where Cortana gets up close and personal by learning how you speak, deciphering your handwriting, and learning your contacts and schedules. That’s all turned on by default.

If you’re ready to break up with Cortana, this is where you do it. Choose Stop Getting to Know Me and then click Turn Off in the window that pops up. This will clear any information Cortana has collected about you so far on that particular machine. You’ll need to take an additional step to clear out the info stored online; more on that below.

If you change your mind and want to get back together with Cortana, you can click the same button, which will now read “Get to know me.”

The other stuff

Windows 10’s other privacy settings let you control which apps can access the camera, the microphone, your name and photograph, your contacts, and your calendar. The default setting for all of those is on, by the way.  

Like most of the other settings, you can turn off access to all of these things or selectively by app. (Though, strangely, some apps — including Microsoft’s own Skype video and audio chat app — appear to be unaffected by these controls.) Turn off all of these things, and you will have greater privacy — but you’ll also have a much less useful device. So my recommendation is to be selective: Give greater access to apps made by companies you trust, and limit the others.

Taming Cortana

So you’re intrigued by Cortana, but you want to take it slow until you get to know each other a little better. You can customize what she knows about you until you’ve developed some trust.

Start by tapping or click inside the Ask Me Anything box to bring up Cortana’s menu, tap the second icon from the top (it looks like an old 5.25-inch floppy disk), and then select Settings.  

The first choice is whether you want Cortana to offer alerts, reminders, or suggestions for places to eat or things to do. Turn this off, and you’re essentially losing the whole reason for using her. So, again, I’d leave this on and get more granular with your controls later.

What Cortana stores in the cloud

Everything you do with Cortana — your Web searches, your appointments, your contacts, and so on — is stored online inside your Windows account as well as on your machine. The reason: If you log in to your account from another device, the virtual personal assistant will “know” just as much about you and you won’t lose any personalized settings.

But if you should decide that Cortana and you aren’t a good match after all and you want to kick her to the curb, everything she knew about you will remain in the cloud. Don’t like that? Tap or click Manage What Cortana Knows about Me in The Cloud. This will open a website where you can wipe out the data.

Tap or click both Clear buttons to erase any memories Cortana has of you. 

Hey Cortana

On most Windows 10 PCs, you can get Cortana’s attention simply by saying, “Hey Cortana.” For this to work, your computer’s microphone needs to always be on and listening for this phrase. If that idea creeps you out, I have good news: This setting is turned off by default. If you leave it off, you can still talk to Cortana by tapping the microphone icon, or you can just type your question in the Ask Me Anything box.

Personally, I’m turning this on; it’s just fun to be able to talk to my computer whenever I want to.

The Notebook

No, not that sappy flick based on the Nicholas Sparks novel. This Notebook is where Cortana stores all the information you have given her, based on the handful of questions she asked when you first fired up Windows 10, and the information she’s learned since then by scanning your email, managing your appointments, and watching your Web searches. (Yes, she does all that.)

This is where you can tell Cortana whether to suggest restaurants and events you might like, which stocks you want her to track, the TV shows you watch, the sports teams you follow, and a whole lot more. Almost all of these settings are turned on by default, but you can easily turn them off or go in and customize them further.

For example, if you don’t want any restaurant recommendations, you can select Eat & Drink and turn off Eat & Drink Cards. But you can also tell her to turn off Foursquare’s restaurant recommendations and turn on customized ones, based on the types of cuisine you like, how much you want to pay, and how far you’re willing to travel for some good eats. (You would, of course, have to supply all of that info to Cortana — she isn’t a mind reader, even if it sometimes seems that way.)

Bottom line: Cortana only knows as much about you as you are willing to tell her. If you’re unsure, turn off most of these categories at first and gradually add them back as your “relationship” develops.

Privacy matters

Yes, it’s possible Microsoft will know more about you than any other human, including your spouse. And yes, if presented with the right legal documents, it could be compelled to share this information with the authorities. That makes Microsoft no different than any other tech company that collects information about its users on the Web.

According to the official company statement on Windows 10 privacy:

Windows does not collect personal information without your consent. To effectively provide Windows as a service, Microsoft gathers some performance, diagnostic and usage information that helps keep Windows and apps running properly. Microsoft uses this information to identify problems and develop fixes. More information on the Microsoft Services Agreement and Privacy Statement for consumers is available on our blogs.microsoft.com website.”

Microsoft has vowed it will not sell the data Cortana collects or use it for marketing purposes. We’ll see how well Microsoft adheres to that over time. But how much the company knows about you is still largely in your hands. It’s up to you to decide where caution ends and paranoia begins.

Send email to Dan Tynan here or follow him on Twitter.

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