Windows 10 Tip: Understand and Configure Privacy Settings

Windows 10 Tip: Understand and Configure Privacy Settings

While I feel that most Windows 10 privacy concerns are overblown, it’s fair to say that the anti-Windows FUD crowd has had an impact on the mainstream media. So here’s how you can configure the Windows 10 privacy features, both during Setup and after you’re already up and running. As you’ll see, Windows 10 is chock full of privacy options, each of which you can configure according to your needs.

Note: these settings are almost identical in Windows 10 Mobile as well, but I’m going to just focus on the PC/tablets versions of Windows 10 here, since those versions are already shipping publicly and impact far more people. –Paul

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Before Windows 10 is installed

When you install or upgrade to Windows 10, Microsoft tried to minimize the number of screens you must read and respond to. And while I appreciate the attempt to save users some time, some of the settings choices they removed from Setup—time zone and network, for example—are items that need to be explicitly and correctly configured. So in Windows 10 Field Guide, I explicitly add these to the list of post-Setup tasks you need to complete.

The biggest time-saver in Setup, of course, is the Express settings step. Here, Microsoft promises you can “get going fast” by accepting dozens of default settings.


What I don’t like about this step is that the “Use Express settings” is so big and obvious, while the option to “Customize settings” is a tiny link on the left that is barely offset from the background. You have to really try to find it.


So two things here. If you care about privacy at all, or if you are simply curious about which options Microsoft enables by default, choose “Customize settings” here. And … Understanding what Microsoft is doing here, I always choose Express settings, and I recommend that most “normal” people do so too.

Anyway, here is what it means to choose Express settings:

Personalization. Microsoft will anonymously collect information about your contacts, calendar data, and other associated data in order to personalize your speech, typing, and inking inputs. It will likewise anonymously collect your typing and inking data in order to improve the recognition and suggestions for these input types. Finally, Windows 10 will let apps anonymously use your advertising ID—which is tied to your Microsoft account—to provide tailored ads. This feature debuted in Windows 8, and if you disable it, you will simply see random ads in those apps that do display ads.


Location. Windows and apps are allowed to request your location information and history, but are not automatically provide with that information until you have OK’d the first such request. Microsoft will share some location data with trusted partners in order to improve the location services in Windows 10.


Browser and protection. Windows and the Microsoft Edge and Internet Explorer web browsers will use SmartScreen technology to help prevent malicious content in web pages and apps from being downloaded to your PC. Likewise, Microsoft’s two web browsers will use page prediction technology to cache web data so that your browsing and reading experiences perform faster. In doing so, Windows 10 sends your browsing data anonymously to Microsoft.


Connectivity and error reporting. Windows 10 will use a feature called Wi-Fi Sense to anonymously and securely connect to known-good Wi-Fi hotspots in hotels, airports, and other locations. This lets you bypass the sometimes tedious process of signing in to free Wi-Fi hotspots that make you create an account or jump through other hoops. Windows 10 will also use Wi-Fi Sense to securely connect to open and protected Wi-Fi networks that are shared by your friends (also using Wi-Fi Sense, with Windows 10). And Windows 10 will automatically send error and diagnostic information to Microsoft so that you can help the firm solve problems.


After Windows 10 is installed

Now, most people will choose Express settings. And most of those people will have done so not because they understand that the settings they enabled provide functionality they want so much as they’re either lazy or the Setup UI was designed to push them in that direction. But then maybe they read or hear about Windows 10’s privacy issues and they get concerned. Is it too late? Can I reverse or at least revisit any of the decisions I didn’t explicitly make during Setup?

The answer is yes. Every single feature you enabled via Express setup can be reversed after the fact. As you might expect, this all happens through Settings (WINKEY + I), which includes a Privacy section that covers every single setting you enabled in Express setup, plus a whole lot more. You should spend time in Privacy settings regardless of what you did in Setup, if only to assure yourself that there is nothing scary happening in Windows 10 at all.


Privacy, General

In Privacy, General, you will see options for disabling the personal advertising ID (which will result in non-personalized ads), disabling the SmartScreen filter on Store apps (which would be dumb), disabling the anonymous sending typing and writing data to Microsoft in order to improve Windows (which would be selfish), and disabling the ability of browsers to understand your configured language(s) for purposes of providing local content (and, I presume, language-correct advertising). There is also a link to the Microsoft Privacy web site, where you can learn more and configure these settings globally for your Microsoft account and/or the current web browser.

Privacy, Location

Here, you can configure and learn about your location settings. Key among the capabilities here is an app list so you can enable location globally but prevent certain apps from accessing this information if you’d like.

Privacy, Camera

As you might expect, this interface lets you globally enable or disable the camera(s) in your PC and determine which apps can access the camera(s).

Privacy, Microphone

Ditto, but for the microphone.

Privacy, Speech, ink and typing. Cortana—which you must explicitly opt into and then later explicitly opt into voice control—will learn your writing (via keyboard or pen) and voice over time so that she can more accurately respond to your questions. Likewise, Cortana—which, remember, is a digital personal assistant—must have access to your calendar and contacts, and collection information about you in her notebook, in order to work at all. If you don’t like that, turn it all off. And don’t use Cortana.

Privacy, Account info. Some Windows Store apps—I couldn’t find any on the three PCs and one tablet I’m using on this trip—will use your account name, picture, and other info to personalize your experience. You can turn this ability off globally or on an app-by-app basis.

Privacy, Contacts. You can explicitly configure which apps have access to your contacts list.

Privacy, Calendar. Ditto, but for your schedule. You can also globally disable calendar access.

Privacy, Messaging. You can globally enable or disable the ability of apps to read or send text messages (SMS and MMS). You can also choose which apps have this access.

Privacy, Radio. Some radios in your PC or tablet—like Bluetooth—can be controlled by apps. You can disable this functionality globally or on an app-by-app basis.

Privacy, Other devices. Devices you have explicitly paired with your PC or tablet—like a smart phone—can automatically sync data and share information. You can disable this functionality globally or on an app-by-app basis.

Privacy, Feedback and diagnostics. By default, Windows will automatically ask you for feedback from time to time, and if you don’t like that, you can change the timing or just turn it off. Likewise, you can configure how or whether anonymous diagnostic information is sent to Microsoft so they can make Windows better. (If you are a member of the Windows Insider program and have enabled Insider access on the current PC, you cannot change this setting, and automatic diagnostic information collection is required.)

Privacy, Background apps. While this is more of a battery life issue than a privacy issue, Windows lets you configure which apps are allowed to run in the background. These apps can stay up to date by receiving information from the Internet, and can trigger notifications … even when you’re not using them. The horrors.

In addition to these options, there are a few other places in Windows 10 Settings that bear scrutiny.

Update & Security, Windows Update, Advanced Options, Choose how updates are delivered. To be clear, this is not a privacy issue, but it is something you should consider disabling: By default, Windows 10 is configured to get updates from “PCs on my local network, and PCs on the Internet,” a curious and secret use of peer-to-peer networking that will no doubt save Microsoft some bandwidth. Here’s an idea: save yourself some bandwidth and change that to “PCs on my local network.” Or just turn it off if you have bandwidth to spare.


Network & Internet, Wi-Fi, Manage Wi-Fi Settings, Wi-Fi Sense. Arguably the most misunderstood feature in Windows 10, Wi-Fi Sense does two things. First, it helps you anonymously sign-in to free public Wi-Fi hotspots which require you to normally enter your name and email address and possibly create an account. And two, it lets you anonymously and securely share your stored Wi-Fi network credentials with friends and family… but only explicitly, and on a network-by-network basis. And no actual sign-in details are ever shared. Anyway, look at the options. And realize there’s nothing scary here at all.


Cortana. This one isn’t in Settings, and I already described how you can configure Cortana in Configure Cortana to Work For You and Train Cortana to Know Your Voice. Everything about Cortana is explicitly opt-in: if you don’t want to use Cortana, just don’t use Cortana. And if you change your mind, you can easily turn off Cortana—and wipe out any collected data—at any time.

Feel better now?

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