Windows 10 – Microsoft’s Big Data-grabbing (or spying?) OS

Windows 10 – Microsoft’s Big Data-grabbing (or spying?) OS

By Bernard Marr Aug 11, 2015

It’s been a couple of weeks since the launch of Windows 10 and the numerous voices raising concerns over privacy and how it uses personal data are not getting any quieter.

Many of the concerns stem from the fact that if users follow the software’s recommendations and stick to default settings while installing their free upgrade, they are effectively giving Microsoft permission to directly monitor pretty much everything they do on their machines. This includes offline activity such as editing files stored locally in private folders on your computer, as well as everything you do online.

It doesn’t stop there, though. As well as monitoring and storing records of this activity, people installing the upgrade are - perhaps unknowingly if like many they have become complacent about reading privacy policies – giving Microsoft permission to share it with unspecified “partners”, for unspecified reasons.

Although the terms and conditions are incredibly vague about why they are doing this, it’s become clear there are several reasons. These include collecting personal data for targeted advertising purposes (by Microsoft or their partners) as well as to gain a deeper understanding of how their products are being put to use by their millions of users.

Privacy in the cloud

Windows 10, running under its default settings, is clearly designed to learn as much about us as it can. The rapid spread of cloud-based software-as-a-service platforms, such as Microsoft’s own Office 365 and Adobe’s Creative Suite, has introduced us all to the idea of software providers gathering data on how we use their products. However integrating this kind of monitoring into the core of the OS (Operating System) takes things to a whole new level. We might have got used to the idea that our activity within the container of a certain program or service is being analysed somewhere, by someone, for some reason. But the fact that this level of scrutiny is now applied to everything we do on our computers is causing many commentators and online security experts to issue warnings.

Even the contents of your emails and documents stored in private, offline folders can be subject to scrutiny and “disclosure” (to unspecified parties), according to the wording of Microsoft’s privacy policies. Of course, it’s quickly become apparent that this is why Microsoft, which has traditionally charged users around $100 to upgrade to the latest version of their OS has, in an uncharacteristic act of generosity, given it away for free. $100 multiplied by the 14 million who updated in the first day alone is clearly a lot of revenue for them to pass up on. However, while the strategical soundness of some of Microsoft’s recent actions have been questioned, this was far from a stupid move on their part. And there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Of course Microsoft want payment for using their services, only this time they are happy to take it in personal data rather than cash.

Personalised advertising profiles

One new concept users are becoming aware of is the Personal Advertising ID. Every user on every installation of Windows 10 is assigned one of these, and if you use other Microsoft devices such as a phone, tablet or Xbox games console, your data will be scooped up from those too. By default, details on every web site you visit, your physical location, every command you type or speak to the computer and countless other data points are recorded and uploaded to Microsoft. From there, they will be shared with producers of apps you download and give permission to run on your system, as well as advertisers. You will now even see adverts popping up in Windows Solitaire!

It is possible, if you diligently check all of your privacy settings, to make sure you are retaining some level of control over what is sent to Microsoft and their partners. However, doing so will disable some of the selling-point features of the new OS, such as Cortana, the voice-driven, artificially intelligent personal assistant. Cortana will not operate without access to your location and permission to transmit a lot of other usage data back to Microsoft.

Essential updates

In the interests of fairness, it should be pointed out that some of the changes Microsoft has made are sensible. For example installation of critical security updates is now compulsory. While some updates reportedly cause problems of their own, as long as they are programmed correctly the principle here is sound. A huge amount of security breaches are caused by users failing to apply critical updates in a timely manner. Microsoft has now apparently backtracked on its decision to allow third party apps to push updates without asking permission, and only essential security and OS updates will be installed in this way.

It’s also fair to mention that none of this is specific to Microsoft. Mobile computing is as popular, if not more so, than PC-based computing these days, and both of the major mobile OS’s collect huge amounts of data on our usage, and share it with their providers and partners. Perhaps there is some psychological difference in our perception of what is acceptable on a phone, and what is acceptable on a computer, but mobile data scooping has generally caused less concern.

For me, there is one glaring lesson that we as users need to take from this. Read your terms and conditions. Pretty much every computer application we use these days – whether on computers, phones or wearables – will collect data about us. It’s very easy to become numbed to the never-ending pages of privacy policies we are urged to read through – by people who know full well we probably won’t bother.

In this day and age – when we are expected to share ever-increasing amounts of information, while at the same time large scale data thefts and breaches are taking place at an ever increasing rate – we can’t afford to become complacent.

If you’re concerned about the security of your personal data (and of course you should be) then several good guides have been written which go into detail about what settings you should change to make sure everything is locked down as tightly as is currently possible – this one

We are becoming more and more used to sacrificing privacy for convenience, features, ease of use and, of course, “free” things. But we can’t afford to become complacent.


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