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Windows 10 privacy settings: Concerns versus reality

New Windows 10 privacy settings require balancing the benefits of new features against the risk of revealing too much personal information online. Expert Michael Cobb explains.

Windows 10 has proved incredibly popular since its release in July. The new operating system, free to download for Windows 7 and Windows 8/8.1 customers, has been installed over 120 million times; the fastest upgrade rate in Windows' history. Despite its success, the press has whipped up a host of privacy concerns surrounding the use of automatic Windows updates and Wi-Fi Sense for Windows data collection capabilities, as well as Cortana, the personal assistant for Windows 10. This tip explores some of these Windows 10 privacy concerns and whether they are valid or merely press hype based on misread privacy policies, and looks at steps enterprises can take to prevent any data security issues.

The area that has caused the most confusion and concern regarding privacy is the telemetry feature, enabled by default in Windows 10. It collects information ranging from security settings, memory snapshots and crash data, to the frequency and manner in which applications are used. It's this last data set that has had the press crying foul.

At first glance, it looks like a serious intrusion into users' privacy, and Terry Myerson, executive vice president of the Windows and Devices Group, felt it necessary to clarify Microsoft's data collection policies in more detail via a blog post. He explained that the personal information collected about its customers is used to optimize personalization so features such as the Cortana virtual assistant work "better for you," while the data collected about the computer's performance is used to detect and correct potential bugs to ensure a "secure and reliable experience." He also said the information collected is encrypted in transit and stored in secure facilities, and that Windows 10 users "are in control, with the ability to determine what information is collected," and new features like Cortana can be disabled using a suite of new privacy customization options.

There are multiple options in the Windows 10 privacy settings to enable or avoid sharing data -- anonymized or otherwise -- and there is a broad range of Group Policy settings that allows administrators to lock down devices. Various apps are available to help individuals choose which features they want to turn on or off, including Ashampoo AntiSpy for Windows 10 or O&O ShutUp10. However, disabling certain settings can reduce or remove functionality, so enterprise administrators should assess risks for each particular feature to ensure the productivity benefits outweigh any possible privacy or security risks.

Microsoft's data-collection policies and practices can be broadly divided into three categories: telemetry, personalization and services; and advertising data. The telemetry data is stored on dedicated servers that are used exclusively for reliability purposes, and shouldn't include any information that directly identifies the user. A unique ID included with each packet allows Microsoft engineers to determine whether 100 identical problem reports are from a single device or from 100 different devices.

Windows 10 has three telemetry settings: Basic, Full, and Enhanced -- the default. Users running Windows Home or Pro editions can change the telemetry collection level in Settings, but only Enterprise and Education editions may disable it completely.

The area that has caused the most confusion and concern regarding privacy is the telemetry feature, enabled by default in Windows 10.

Windows 10 uses many more cloud services than previous versions of Windows, so Microsoft requires more permissions than in the past to enable features and online services like Outlook, OneDrive, Cortana, Skype and Bing to function effectively. This is something else the press has picked up on, but Windows must act on the user's behalf to collect personal data to understand user preferences and keep files in sync; the personal data isn't collected and stored for use by Microsoft.

The Cortana service, for example, is not a malicious keylogging app, rather, it collects samples of typed and spoken words in a personalized dictionary to provide text suggestions and autocorrections. Likewise for names, locations and other details of an appointment created using Cortana, which are scrubbed of identifying information such as IDs and IP addresses.

Finally, neither Windows 10 nor any other Microsoft software scans the content of email or other communications -- or files -- in order to deliver targeted advertising. Windows 10 does, however, use an advertising ID. This makes it possible for Microsoft's ad servers to keep track of which ads a user has seen over the course of the day across all the apps they use. Personal information about the user isn't shared with advertisers, which instead use an algorithm to determine which advertisements the user may be interested in. The advertising ID can also be disabled in the Windows 10 privacy settings, in which case the user will receive generic advertisements.

Today's computers and smart devices deliver services by connecting to and sharing data with servers located on the Internet. There are obvious advantages to sharing information, such as crash reports and app usage, as they can be used to optimize a user's day-to-day experience, and on the whole, most users probably feel it's a fair tradeoff between privacy and performance. More personalized services require more information sharing, and enterprises need to decide what the appropriate balance is between personalization, productivity and information sharing.

Enterprise security teams should always assess the risks of new operating systems and software, particularly if they will have access to sensitive data. Tools such as Wireshark can analyze packets and data leaving a machine. If a service has been disabled but is still sending out data to an unknown address or for an unknown purpose, the packets should be blocked before they leave the network. By configuring Windows telemetry at the Security level, and turning off all other connections to Microsoft services, Windows 10 Enterprise users can prevent Windows from sending any data to Microsoft.

Software vendors need to be open about what data is collected and why, as well as how it is stored and used. While their legal department needs to write a privacy policy that stands up in court there should also be a plain English version that the average user and administrator can understand in order to make an informed decision.

Next Steps

Here is a first look at the new security features in Windows 10

Find out if the Windows 10 privacy brouhaha is overblown or not

Learn more about why Windows 10 data collection has sparked privacy concerns

This was last published in December 2015

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