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Windows 10 privacy settings – A guide to living off the grid

Windows 10 Security.jpg

Knowing if or how much private data is shared by your Operating System (OS) is an important part for many users. The Windows 10 default settings can be seen as privacy-intrusive to some, collecting all available information on you.

First of all, I recommend reading (yes, actually reading) the entire Microsoft Privacy Statement. For those of you like keeping your personal information just that, personal, the extract from the Privacy Statement below might be spine-chilling.

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.

Here is a guide to the Windows 10 privacy settings for gamers who want to live as “off the grid” as possible, including what each of the OS’ privacy settings do and how to turn them off.

Options during the installation process

If you are still waiting for your Windows 10 upgrade or you are holding out on upgrading until you have more reviews / information available, this part of the article is for you. At the end of the Windows 10 installation process, users have the option to go with the “Express” settings or customize their privacy settings. I would recommend taking a few extra minutes and choosing custom settings through a two page process, turning off options you do not feel comfortable with.

Personalization: The setting helps windows tailor to your “speech, typing and inking input”. The function works “by sending contacts and calendar details, along with other associated input data to Microsoft."

Advertising ID: Windows 10 generates a unique advertising ID for each of its users. "Let apps use your advertising ID for experiences across apps." What this setting does is allow app ad networks and app developers to profile you and send you ads based on how you use Windows 10.

Location: If you leave this option enabled, you allow Windows 10 and apps to request your location via your IP address. Furthermore, the location setting lets Windows 10 "send Microsoft and trusted partners some location data to improve location services." At the time of writing it is unclear who these “trusted partners” are and bring up some privacy concerns.

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SmartScreen Filter: The setting is there to protect you against “malicious content and downloads” in Microsoft’s new browser called Edge. SmartScreen filter does sound like an option you don’t have to worry about.

Page Prediction: It helps Microsoft “improve reading, speed up browsing, and make your overall experience better in Windows browsers." The data collected relates to your browser usage history, for example which pages you like to frequent.

Wi-Fi Sense options: You have two options during the installation process that dictate how your PC connects to wireless networks. The first setting allows your PC to automatically connect to “suggested open hotspots”. The second Wi-Fi Sense setting does two things. It lets your PC automatically connect to networks people have shared with you and allows you to select a Wi-Fi network to share with your Outlook contacts, Facebook friends or people you have on Skype. In essence, your encrypted passwords are stored on a Microsoft server. Furthermore, with Wi-Fi Sense enabled, all of your Facebook “friends” will have access to the network you share.

Error and Diagnostics: The final privacy setting during the installation process allows your PC to "send error and diagnostic information to Microsoft." It is a handy setting that can help you find a solution to the issue you are experiencing. However, it works by sending details of your situation to Microsoft, including data that can help the company find you a solution to the problem.

If you already installed Windows 10 and opted to use the “Express” setup featuring during the privacy settings page, you can still modify your settings through the steps in the next section of the article.

Changing privacy settings after installation

Navigate to Windows 10’s Settings by clicking on the Start Menu and then clicking on the “Settings” option in the lower left area. Click on the “Privacy” option, where you will find 13 different tabs. Most of the settings mentioned in the first part of this article is under the general tab, but be sure to check out all  of them and turn off anything that seems worrying to you. For example, you can choose which apps, if any, can access data such as your PC’s location, contacts, microphone and more. The Wi-Fi Sense option mentioned earlier is not under the “Privacy” tab. To find it, navigate to the “Network and Internet” option in the System Settings; and then click “Manage Wi-Fi settings below the list of available networks and turn off options you don’t feel comfortable with.

Dumping Cortana: Cortana, named after the Halo character, is integrated into Windows 10. It is a useful feature but does collect data. However, for the feature to work, Windows 10 needs to collect private data from the user.

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.” - Source

If you don’t like Cortana or the amount of information it collects isn’t something you prefer, you can turn off Cortana with these simple steps: Click on the search bar in the Windows 10 taskbar. Click on the “Gear” icon on the left side and then on Cortana settings. Turn Cortana off Alternatively, you can manage the information Cortana keeps in the cloud.

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Personalized ads: There are some privacy settings that aren’t even in Windows 10. The settings are located on a website called “Your privacy and Microsoft personalized ads”. You can go to the options directly (on the new Edge browser if you like) and set both options to off. For example, “Personalized ads wherever I use my Microsoft account”.

Rock Paper Shotgun’s Alec Meer notes that one of the options keeps turning back on:

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.” - Source

Go local: You can remove your Microsoft account from Windows 10, opting to use a local account instead. Please keep in mind that you will not see fewer ads and will lose out on features such as setting synchronization across multiple PCs. However, using a local account will limit the amount of information gathered on your activities. To use a local account, do the following: Navigate to Settings, then click on Accounts. Click on Account within Windows 10 There, you can remove your Microsoft account and use a “local account” via the relevant options.  

The information within this article can hopefully help you make an informed choice with regards to your privacy settings. Do you think Windows 10’s default settings are privacy-invasive? What measures to you take to secure your personal information? Let us know in the comment section below.

Sources: Polygon, Rock Paper Shotgun, Microsoft Privacy Statement.

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