Critics say the price to pay for Windows 10 is user privacy

Microsoft | Microsoft rolled out the operating system Windows 10 starting on July 29, 2015
4 min

Microsoft’s latest operating system Windows 10 is now available, and is even free. However, critics say its capacity to collect and exploit users’ personal information likens it to worryingly invasive spyware.


The US computer giant launched Windows 10 globally on July 29, hailing it as the “best” and “most secure” version ever and the company was happy to report that the system had been installed 14 million devices worldwide within 24 hours of the rollout, garnering “overwhelmingly positive” reviews.

The software was cheered as a huge improvement by WIRED magazine while leading French newspaper “Le Monde” said it had fallen back in love with the operating system after the Windows 8 debacle three years ago.

But it was not all plaudits for Microsoft’s new baby. A torrent of criticism followed the launch by observers who warned that Windows 10 turns PCs, tablets and smartphones into machines that spy on their owners in unprecedented ways.

If installed with the default settings, Windows 10 will gather significant information about its users and send it to Microsoft, which in turn can sell that data to advertisers.

Critics say the “free” operating system, in fact, carries a hefty cost: privacy.

Deleting cookies won’t help

During installation the system assigns each user a so-called “advertising ID”, already introduced with Windows 8.1.

This unique signature is linked to email addresses on platforms like Outlook and Hotmail, and allows developers and advertisers to profile users’ Internet behaviour across connected devices and apps. The ID means Windows can keep track and cross-reference users’ search history, favourite websites, search queries, locations, their address books and more.

In Microsoft’s own words, the information gathered can then be referenced by third parties to deliver targeted ads “based on your likely interests or other information that we learn about you over time”.

But thanks to the unique advertising ID, cryptography expert Ray Dillinger warns, “every advertiser in the world, and anybody else who accesses that service, knows exactly who you are and exactly what other websites you've ever visited, whether or not you delete cookies”.

Other critics point out that Windows 10 will also identify and keep sensitive personal information – such as website and mobile passwords and Wi-Fi codes – on Microsoft’s servers, unless users painstakingly change the default privacy settings. The software giant can also figure out how users arrange their PCs’ desktops and what shortcuts they create for preferred programmes.

Cortana, the mole

One of the ways Microsoft has promised to boost their client’s security is BitLocker disk encryption feature, and Windows 10 is no exception. The operating system will automatically encrypt the drive it is installed on and generate a recovery key.

However, as technology journalist Mica Wright points out in The News Web site, this encryption key is backed up to Microsoft’s servers. That means it can be obtained by law enforcement or other government agencies that request it from the company.

Then there is Cortana, the name for the voice-prompted assistant featured in some smartphones and now available for PCs with Windows 10. Like Siri on iPhone, Cortana can performs tasks (“Call home”), answers questions (“When is my next appointment?"), and even offers its own suggestions (“It’s your mother’s birthday”).

To do so Cortana must be able to access a long list of personal information stored in a phone’s call log, address book, calendar, text message, emails and often-used applications. Logically, Cortana would not be able to act as a virtual concierge if it did not have access to all this data, but it’s not exactly clear what, if any, limits are placed on it.

The relevant section on Microsoft’s Privacy Statement reads: “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.”

Counter intelligence

Microsoft is not unique in its appetite for personal data. Google and Facebook have for years employed the same techniques to make their “free” web services profitable enterprises. But some now wonder if Windows 10 will eclipse other services in the scope of personal data collection.

While Google and Facebook track behaviour on the Internet – when users search for a flight or “like” a musician’s profile page – Windows 10 starts mining information as soon as a computer is turned on.

Windows 10 users are nevertheless not constrained to surrender every detail of their lives to Microsoft and its “trusted partners”, as unnamed third parties are often referred to on its Terms and Conditions document.

Almost all of the troubling privacy settings can be deactivated before or after installation. Doing so, however, has proven to be a cumbersome task and dozens of online guides showing users how to reclaim their privacy have been published in recent days.

This article was translated from its original in French.

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