The launch of Windows 10 saw a marked increase in the amount of data the OS collected and sent back to the Microsoft mothership. Despite the general hue and outcry from privacy watchdogs, Microsoft actually doubled-down on this practice shortly after the Windows 10 release and extended this “feature” to Windows 7 and 8 as well. Given that Windows 10 hit 100 million installs in record time, and with a worldwide goal of 1 billion installs in 3 years, Microsoft seems to have decided to break their stony silence on the growing privacy concerns before they hit critical mass. Vice President Terry Myerson confirmed via the Windows Blog that Microsoft is collecting two types of data, and then goes on to mention a set of data they specifically don’t collect, but other platforms (ie: the competition) do.
What this means for you:
The data Microsoft collects from every Windows 7, 8 and 10 computer falls into two buckets they name as “Reliability & Performance” and “Personalization”. The first type of data has actually been collected for years: remember those blue screens of death that plagued our Windows existence? Depending on how your computer was configured, whenever that garish specter showed its ugly face, your computer was compiling an error report that could be sent to Microsoft, ostensibly to catalog and analyze your crash. Assuming enough of those reports came in on the same bug, they would construct a patch that would be rolled into one of the many OS updates applied over the years. Where in previous OS versions this data seemed to be largely compiled and ignored, Microsoft has taken a much more aggressive and proactive approach with the Windows 10 data being collected, and using it to quickly fix issues, improve performance and to add features that users are missing. The important difference now versus years previous was whether or not you had a choice in letting Microsoft see this type of data collected from your computer. From this point forward, you can only adjust the detail of data submitted, but cannot opt out (except by completely disconnecting from the internet forever). According to Microsoft, the data is anonymized, transmitted securely and can never be tracked back to a specific person or machine.
The second set of data (from which you can opt out) is used to feed Microsoft’s digital assistant Cortana (named after a videogame character from the Halo franchise). Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri and Google’s Now services is still very new and untested, but shows similar promise in helping Windows 10 users get more from the new OS if they like that sort of thing. The key to these types of services is their ability to build a personal knowledge graph of the user which can be based upon just about every aspect for which a computer or mobile device is used, including location, age, gender, contact lists, favorites, browser & shopping history and so on.
Don’t want Cortana (Microsoft) creating a profile on you? Head to the Windows menu (the one they brought back in 10, remember?), click “Settings” and then “Privacy”. Get settled in to review every entry and adjust to your sense of privacy is somewhat restored, at least as far as Windows 10 is concerned.