Microsoft’s Windows 10 has been branded by many security analysts as the “worst spyware ever made,” and that might be an understatement. There are ways, however, to help mitigate Windows 10’s unprecedented security and privacy intrusions. Some of them are internal settings to Windows 10, but some are external, such as using a virtual private network, or VPN. We’ll go through several of them in this article.
The problems with Windows 10 started even before it was available in stores. Users running previous versions of Windows complained that the new operating system was downloading to their computers without their consent; if that’s not all, Windows 10 was using the internet connections of some users to send updates to others.
Even worse, however, was the revelation buried deep in Microsoft’s service agreement, a 12,000 word book-length document:
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.
What does all this mean for you, the user? It means that if you’re running Windows 10 in its default state without taking measures to stop it, Windows 10 will collect, retain, and even disclose every bit of data – private or not – anytime they want to.
As of Spring 2017, the so-called “Creators Update” for Windows 10 is available, and has even more privacy intrusions – and they’re all turned on by default.
If you’re angry or worried reading that, then you’re in the right place. Let’s get started on how to mitigate some of this damage and get some of your privacy back.
Change the Windows 10 Privacy Settings
The first thing you can do is go to the Settings, and click on Privacy. There are thirteen screens you’ll have to walk through. We suggest going item by item and asking yourself, “Does Windows really need access to this?” Don’t pay attention to what the system tells you it needs; Microsoft has all kinds of ways to try and convince you that they need your information. It’s your information, however, so you get to decide what they collect.
The absolute critical part to this is turning off personalized ads. Under Settings > Privacy > General, turn off the setting that says “Let apps use my advertising ID for experience across apps (turning this off will reset your ID).” If you don’t disable this, advertising cookies will keep track of you as you surf the web, keeping records of where you go and what you do.
As long as we’re dealing with intrusive, targeted ads, go over to https://choice.microsoft.com/en-us/opt-out as well, and turn off personalized ads for your browser. There’s much more to do inside Windows 10 to take back your privacy, though, so don’t think you’re finished yet.
One of the easiest ways to get people to voluntarily give up their personal information or privacy is by offering them convenience; Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant, offers that in spades. It also, however, has access to your microphone, camera, documents, and files. All that convenience comes at a very high cost; it’s recommended that you turn off Cortana in the settings menu, found in the bottom corner of the Cortana window.
Change the Creators Update Settings
If you’ve applied the Creators Update in Windows 10, you’ll want to go back into the privacy settings and change the following settings:
- Let apps use advertising ID to make ads more interesting to you based on your app usage
- Let websites provide locally relevant content by accessing my language list
- Let Windows track app launches to improve Start and search results
In addition, click the link to “Manage my info that’s stored in the cloud,” because that will allow you to control what advertisements are shown to you by Microsoft sites and applications. If you’re smart, you’ll keep your information out of the cloud as much as possible.
Turn Off Location Settings
Part of intruding into your privacy is Microsoft’s desire to know where you are. You can turn this off in the location page, and you can also click the link to “Manage my location info that’s stored in the cloud.”
Disable Accessibility Settings
If you don’t actually need the speech, inking and typing helpers, turn them off. Leaving them enabled means that Microsoft is using your microphone, typing and even handwriting patterns, analyzing them and storing the results of that analysis. While Microsoft says it’s so that it can offer better suggestions, it’s still spying on you and storing the data. Once again, click the link to handle settings in the cloud for your data.
Turn Off Background Apps
Under “Background Apps,” you can decide what programs are running in the background of your computer, collecting or storing data. You can turn them all off, or pick and choose.
Turn Off App Diagnostics
With the Creators Update, there’s a new setting called “App Diagnostics,” and it allows you to control what apps are collecting data about your usage. Changing this setting might take you a while, because it requires you to go through each app and decide what it needs, versus what it wants to collect.
Setting up Windows 10 with a view to privacy is a fairly long and involved process. There are several exhaustive lists, including those for the Creators Update. For the external things you can do outside the operating system itself, read on.
Use a VPN
A virtual private network is the absolute baseline critical step in taking back your privacy. In short, a VPN puts itself between you and the internet, serving as a shield for your identity. If used properly, a VPN can offer anonymity and privacy for your travels on the web. This article we recently wrote Best VPN for Windows 10 contains our recommendations for solid and reliable vpn service providers for Windows users.
Use a Different Browser Than Microsoft Edge
If you’ve taken the steps above, then you’re well on your way to mitigating the damage that Windows 10 does to your privacy. You can take it even a step further, however, and use a privacy-conscious browser as well. Microsoft Edge, the browser built into Windows 10, has its own privacy issues. You’re far better off using something like Firefox or Brave, and setting it up with ad blockers and privacy protections.
Windows 10 is indeed a positive step forward for most Windows users (after the widespread condemnation of the Windows 8.1 operating system) in regards to usability and familiarity. However, there have also been some pretty disturbing concerns raised for those that value their privacy. The good news though, is that there are steps that you can take to mitigate these Windows 10 privacy concerns such as those that we have outlined in this article.