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How to stop Windows 10's prying eyes

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Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Windows 10 is here, and Microsoft's latest operating system is designed for a mobile-first, cloud-first future, as CEO Satya Nadella puts it. But that future relies on big data — your data — and by default, Windows 10 can track and share the websites you visit, the purchases you make, the places you go, the words you type, the things you say and more.

You have the ability to control Windows 10's data collection, but it takes some doing. The installation process lets you customize privacy settings at the end or go with the defaults in "express settings." We'd suggest taking the extra two minutes to forgo the latter and make your own choices here, or adjusting the options after installation, because Microsoft's default privacy settings might not be as private as you'd like.

The first page of settings lists four options that you can toggle on or off, while the second page lists five items. All of them are on by default.

Under "Personalization," the first setting tailors your "speech, typing and inking input" to the way you talk, type and write ... "by sending contacts and calendar details, along with other associated input data to Microsoft." The next setting sends typing and inking data to Microsoft to "improve the recognition and suggestion platform."

Some people may be comfortable with this usage; after all, third-party smartphone keyboards like SwiftKey improve their autocorrect functionality by learning how you type. But for others, sharing "contacts and calendar details" may be a bridge too far.

Next is a rather nebulous entry: "Let apps use your advertising ID for experiences across apps." What this sentence doesn't quite explain is that Windows 10 generates a unique advertising ID for each user. If this option is enabled, it allows app developers and ad networks to profile you using that ID and serve you ads based on how you use your PC.

The final part of the first settings page concerns location. Your computer may not have a GPS radio in it like your smartphone does, but if you're connected to the internet, your location can be tracked through your IP address. With this option enabled, you're allowing Windows and apps to request your location, including your location history. That's useful for location-based services like, say, telling a retailer's website where you are so it can give you the address of the nearest store.

However, the location setting also lets Windows 10 "send Microsoft and trusted partners some location data to improve location services." That part of the equation may give you pause, especially since you have no say in what Microsoft's "trusted partners" might be. (ExtremeTech reports that the Windows 8 installation process included a similar setting, but without the sharing of your data with so-called trusted partners.)

Let's move to page two. The first toggle in the browser section enables Microsoft's SmartScreen Filter, which protects you against "malicious content and downloads" in Windows browsers — Microsoft Edge, which debuts in Windows 10, and Internet Explorer — and Windows Store apps. That sounds pretty good! Next is a setting for page prediction, which sends your browsing data to Microsoft to "improve reading, speed up browsing, and make your overall experience better in Windows browsers." You may have a similar feature enabled in your existing web browser, such as Google Chrome.

Windows 10 Wi-Fi Sense settings screenshot 1068

The next two options govern the way your PC connects to wireless networks, as part of a new Windows 10 feature called Wi-Fi Sense. The first setting lets you automatically connect to "suggested open hotspots," while the second does the same for "networks shared by your contacts."

According to Microsoft's Wi-Fi Sense FAQ, the former setting relies on Microsoft's crowdsourced database of open Wi-Fi hotspots. If enough people get a good-quality connection from a hotspot, it'll be added to the database.

The second setting is meant to eliminate the hassle of asking a friend for their Wi-Fi password when you visit their place. If enabled, the setting does two things: (1) allows you to select Wi-Fi networks to share with your contacts, Skype contacts or Facebook friends, and (2) lets your PC automatically connect to networks people have shared with you.

The way this works is that Wi-Fi passwords are shared through Wi-Fi Sense. The passwords are encrypted, and Wi-Fi Sense only provides internet access, not file sharing access. But those encrypted passwords are stored on a Microsoft server somewhere. And there's no granularity: If you click the Facebook check box, Wi-Fi Sense will allow all of your Facebook friends to connect to networks you've selected for sharing.

The final setting during Windows 10's installation process lets your computer "send error and diagnostic information to Microsoft." So if something goes wrong with your PC in the future, it can send details of the situation to Microsoft, and the company can hopefully use that data to help find you a solution to the issue.

Windows 10 Settings menu screenshot 1060

Adjusting privacy after installing Windows 10

If you did just click "express settings" during the Windows 10 installation, that's OK: You can still change any of these settings whenever you want. Microsoft offers a guide with a laughable lack of specifics on how to do this, so here are some details.

Instead of visiting the Control Panel, like you might be accustomed to doing, open the Start menu (yes, it's back!) and click on Settings in the lower left area. (You can also reach the system settings by opening up Windows 10's new Action Center — click on the speech bubble near the right end of the taskbar, then click "All settings.")

Most of the aforementioned toggles can be found under Privacy. That section also contains a host of other privacy settings, like options for which apps are allowed to access your PC's location, camera, microphone, contacts, calendar and more. To get to the Wi-Fi Sense options, click Network & Internet in the system settings, then hit "Manage Wi-Fi settings" below the list of available networks.

Hey, Cortana

Cortana, Microsoft's voice-powered digital assistant — and yes, she's named after the Halo character — is integrated directly into Windows 10. She's undeniably useful, able to search your computer and the internet through voice commands initiated with the phrase "hey, Cortana." She also offers Google Now-like features such as presenting you with news, sports scores, alerts, reminders and more.

But like Google with Google Now, Apple with Siri and Amazon with the Echo, Microsoft needs to collect a lot of data about you and how you use the internet in order to deliver that magical-seeming functionality. Here's a relevant excerpt from Microsoft's privacy statement:

To enable Cortana to provide personalized experiences and relevant suggestions, Microsoft collects and uses various types of data, such as your device location, data from your calendar, the apps you use, data from your emails and text messages, who you call, your contacts and how often you interact with them on your device. Cortana also learns about you by collecting data about how you use your device and other Microsoft services, such as your music, alarm settings, whether the lock screen is on, what you view and purchase, your browse and Bing search history, and more.

Cortana also analyzes your speech data, of course, and that information is "sent to Microsoft to build personalized speech models and improve speech recognition." Again, this kind of tracking is common to all these services, because they couldn't function without it. But if you're not comfortable with it, you can click the search bar that's embedded in the Windows 10 taskbar, then click the gear icon on the left side to access your Cortana settings. There, you can turn Cortana on or off, and manage the information about you that Cortana keeps in the cloud.

Personalized advertising

The last piece of the privacy puzzle isn't in Windows 10 at all; it's located on a website, as Rock, Paper, Shotgun points out. On that site, Microsoft makes the case for tailoring ads to your interests, and indeed, that's something you may want. But the company lets you opt out of ad personalization in two separate situations: in your browser, and "wherever I use my Microsoft account," which includes Windows, Xbox and other Microsoft services.

Read the fine print

As we've noted above, online services that rely on the collection of mounds of user data are only becoming more ubiquitous. These services look to make our lives easier by learning how we live, work and play so they can anticipate our next move, satisfying our desires before we even express them.

it's worth knowing what you're signing up for

There's a larger conversation to be had about whether, or to what extent, we should be entrusting our ever-growing digital footprints to corporations like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. But whichever side of the debate you fall on, it's worth knowing what you're signing up for when you scroll past the next end-user license agreement you see.

Verge Video: Is Windows 10 worth the upload?