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Windows 10 Is Spying On You: Here's How To Stop It

45 pages of service agreement, 13 settings screens and a website are not "real transparency"

Windows 10's privacy settings very much need to be frowned at. Essentially: unless you pay close attention to the fluffy options offered when you first install Microsoft's new operating system, it's going to quietly track your behaviour and use it to fire targeted ads at you, as well as keeping tabs on your location history, data from messages, calendars, contacts and God knows what else. It is a bit scary, despite coming off the back of Microsoft's own pledge to offer 'real transparency'. You may or may not be OK with this yourself, but in any event at least some of this stuff can be turned off after the fact. I'll explain how to do that below.

Yesterday we talked about whether or not you should upgrade to Microsoft's new operating system and before that we looked at the potentially dodgy WiFi Sense feature. Privacy is an even bigger issue.

Conventional wisdom has it that Microsoft's fight for technological relevance is against Apple. For a time that was true, but as of late they've effectively ceded the floor to the Cupertino mob when it comes to hardware (although I hope the Surface Pro line continues - I'm a big fan) and have once again narrowed their computing focus to software. The battle there is against Google, whose search, browser and productivity tools increasingly form a loose, web-based operating system. People aren't so hot on paying for things these days, which means the money comes from harvesting data and flogging it to advertisers and other organisations who want to know exactly what we're all up to online. Microsoft want a piece of that, so if you ever wondered why they've made the Windows 10 upgrade free to Win 7 & 8 users, here's one possible answer. Windows 10 has all sorts of user tracking baked right in.

Importantly, you can opt out of what seems to be all this stuff (time will tell) either during installation or afterwards, though Microsoft swaddle it in a combination of dissembling "hey, this stuff'll really help you get the information you want' fluff and 45 pages of service agreement documents. I'll refer you here and here for a detailed breakdown of the really worrying stuff, but the long and short of it is the operating system assigns you a unique advertising ID, which is is tied to the email address you've associated with Windows and fed data from a great many facets of your computer usage. Including the contents of messages and calendars, apps and networks, some purchases and whatever you upload to Microsoft's unreliable OneDrive cloud storage. Using the Cortana search assistant makes the harvest even more aggressive, and of course the OS claims it's all in the name of a better, more accurate online experience for you.

Look: so much of the business of the internet is currently built around advertising. People are well-accustomed to getting their information for free, and in the absence of a more mutually satisfying system that's where we are for now (hello, uh, please either whitelist RPS in your adblocker and/or take a look at our Supporter scheme if you feel like this website should stick around for a while). The likes of Google (especially the increasingly ubiquitous Chrome browser, increasingly a hub for their services and data tracking) Facebook and Twitter are already snaffling up untold amounts of information about us, while your smartphone is essentially a pocket-sized vault of saleable information about you, and for better or worse the majority of users appear to be taking that in their stride. But it becomes something else when the very infrastructure of your computer is keeping tabs on most everything you do and then selling it on to unknown third-parties, as well as potentially storing it on someone else's servers forever.

Our lives are on our computers, and our lives are nobody else's business. I don't want to wind up seeing adverts for tents while playing Solitaire because I spend a bit too much time looking at my photos of a camping holiday from 2004 and mourning the youth and freedom I had then. I definitely don't want Windows knowing about my kid and then giving me consumerist recommendations on how to raise her. And I most definitely am not cool with this:

“We will access, disclose and preserve personal data, including your content (such as the content of your emails, other private communications or files in private folders), when we have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary to.”

In terms of raw practicality, you're unlikely to actually notice any of this happening, especially as to some degree the results of it will appear as ads within Windows Store apps - and that thing ain't exactly a smash hit yet. Internet Explorer and Microsoft's new Edge browser will also be bigger beneficiaries.

The new version of Solitaire also features ads (see above) unless you pay to unlock them, which is a particularly heartbreaking sign of the times, and that's one example of somewhere this is likely to weave its dark spell. Essentially, you might wind up clicking on more ads than you otherwise would, because they're tailored to your interests. Some people may not mind that, others will find it to be profoundly sinister.

Conceptually it's another story entirely: a large corporation is gathering and storing vast amounts of data on your computing habits, and not simply what you do in a browser.

The other issue here is that Microsoft simply aren't making it clear enough that they're doing this, how it might affect you and how to opt out - despite chest-thumping, we're-all-chums-here talk about how "real transparency starts with straightforward terms and policies that people can clearly understand."

There is no world in which 45 pages of policy documents and opt-out settings split across 13 different Settings screens and an external website constitutes "real transparency."

How to opt out

OK, here's how to take control of this stuff if you're worried about it. No, opting out is not especially simple, although if you take an absolutist approach it doesn't take at all long to set everything to 'no.' If you're yet to install Windows 10 and are concerned about all this stuff, you can head most of it off at the pass by declining Express settings and choosing options yourself, refusing any request to let the OS or apps access your location and turning the Cortana search assistant off. If you missed the boat there, you'll need to do any and all of the following. Even if you were super-cautious during setup, be sure to follow step 3 below if you're concerned.

1. Go to Settings - Privacy and go through the 13 different screens there and turn anything which concerns you to off. The biggest, most universal settings are under 'General', while the other screens let you choose which apps can and can't access your calendar, messages, camera, mic, etcetera. There may well be stuff you want to leave on - for instance, I do actually want Windows' Calendar app to access my calendar data (obv), I just don't want it to sell that data on because I don't want to be bombarded with flower ads when it's my mum's birthday.

2. Depending on whether you've been finding it useful or not, you may want to go to Cortana's settings and turn off everything there. It's just working as a basic file search for me now, as I didn't want its 'suggestions', I didn't want it to lock me into Bing and I didn't want a tiny part of my processor to be forever dedicated to listening out for voice commands I will never use.

3. This is the crucial one, and so fundamental to Windows 10's tracking that Microsoft have stuck the setting on an external website, which they say is so that it's on one easy dashboard, but I find it hard not to wonder if it's in the hope that we don't easily stumble across it while browsing Windows 10's own Privacy menus. Said website is colourful and cheerful and can play a video at you talking about how wonderful targeted advertising is. Ignore the bumf and instead go directly here and set both options to Off. It's the innocuous-sounding "Personalised ads wherever I use my Microsoft account" which is the likely root of all this, because having that on means Windows 10 itself becomes a hub for targeted ads. You'll probably have set up Windows 10 with a Microsoft account, because it heavily encourages you to do so with talk of synchronised files and settings and a OneDrive cloud account during installation, but this means the OS is signed into that account all the time. As a result, Windows 10 itself has it spyglasses on, not just apps or pages that you're signed into with your MS account.

I notice that every time I go back to that page, the "Personalised ads in this browser" setting has silently turned itself back on again. This is concerning, but I'm not yet sure if it's a bug or if it's exploiting sessions as an excuse to reset regularly. Judicious ad and cookie control with your plugins and browser options of choice can change this, however. Again, do remember that many websites are dependent on advertising revenue to survive, but opting out of targeted advertising - and having that opt out be respected - is another matter entirely.

4. You may also wish to remove your Microsoft account from Windows 10 and use a local account instead. This will double-down on restricting what's harvested, though you'll lose out on features such as settings synchronisation across all your PCs and will suffer more nagging from stuff like the Windows Store and OneDrive. Probably not a big deal for many people, I suspect. Go to Settings - Accounts - Your Account within Windows 10 (or just type 'Accounts' into haha Cortana) to get to the relevant options.

If you have multiple PCs already running Windows 10 you'll need to do all of this on each of them, although your Microsoft account opt-out should be universal.

None of these options mean you'll see fewer ads, but they do mean that not quite so much information about you will be gathered and sold, and also that the ads you do see won't be 'relevant' to what algorithms have decided your interests are. It is worth noting that some folk find the latter to be preferable to entirely irrelevant ads, and in some cases even useful - but certainly not everyone. Hopefully you can use the information here to make an informed choice about what happens. Again, in many respects it's not wildly different from what already happens on your smart phone or your browser, but it's important that you should know about it, and that Windows now has something of an ulterior motive.

More options, or clearer options, may become available in time, depending on how much of the world frowns at Microsoft about this. I'll let you know if I hear of anything else that needs doing in order to have Windows 10 respect your privacy.

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