If you are running Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows 10, your computer is almost certainly spying on you as you read these words.
The reason is simple. Microsoft has adopted the business strategy employed by Google, Facebook and other Internet giants: profiting by gathering and selling users’ personal information rather than by making useful products.
That’s not to say that Windows 10 isn’t useful. It’s actually the best Microsoft OS I’ve seen, and I’ve tried them all. The problem is that according to the fine print, by default,
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Microsoft collects information about you, your devices, applications and networks, and your use of those devices, applications and networks. Examples of data we collect include your name, email address, preferences and interests; browsing, search and file history; phone call and SMS data; device configuration and sensor data; and application usage. […] 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 protect our customers or enforce the terms governing the use of the services.
If that sounds frightening, that’s because it absolutely is. But I can help you fix it in a matter of minutes.
Turning You Into a Commodity
Back in the good old days of U.S. capitalism, companies used to make money by making useful products that people were willing to pay for. Now they give things away for free so they can sell their customers’ private data to anybody willing to pay.
For example, Windows 10 assigns a unique “Advertising ID” to each user. Ad networks profile you using that ID and send you advertisements based on how you have been using your computer. If you install software or hardware that Microsoft decides is “illegal” or “harmful,” it can disable it remotely.
Even worse, by default, “Cortana,” Microsoft’s version of Apple’s Siri, has access to your camera and microphone. Cortana also has access to your contacts, calendar and probably all of your documents. Every time you use the Search function, a report is made to Microsoft.
But the problem isn’t just privacy. Windows 10 constantly communicates with Microsoft, and hijacks your computer bandwidth to update/upgrade other people’s computers — essentially, it turns your computer into a Microsoft server. This bandwidth theft can easily blow through your Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) monthly data limits, costing you money.
Trust Isn’t the Issue
In my view, Microsoft has a powerful incentive NOT to misuse its customers’ privacy. The company claims that it strips personally identifiable information from the data it harvests from your computer before it assembles and uses it, or sells it to others. It’s probably telling the truth about this. Apple, Google and other companies do similar things, but none of these firms would survive a serious data breach, since it would destroy public confidence overnight.
But Microsoft’s intentions aren’t the issue. The danger is that third parties could hack and/or coerce the company into handing over your data. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice is currently trying to force Microsoft to hand over data on its servers in Ireland because they might contain information useful to the “war on drugs.” We know that Microsoft has cooperated with the National Security Agency in the past. And despite its formidable technical prowess, I suspect Microsoft is as vulnerable to determined hackers as anyone else.
Hacking Your Own PC
Most, but not all, of the settings that Windows 10 uses to spy on you can be disabled by tweaking the security settings. Click on the Windows symbol in the lower left corner of your screen, select “Settings,” then click on “Privacy.” You can then disable most of the settings manually.
A much simpler solution that I have tested and scanned for spyware is this antispy tool. I have researched and reviewed the company that makes it, a privacy-sensitive outfit in Germany, and I’ve used it on my own machine. It works and didn’t do any harm to my setup.
A Solution — For Now
Data-collection technology is an arms race. The solutions I’ve given here will result in a compensatory response from Microsoft — if enough people adopt them.
That’s why you need to look at data privacy as a service — as something updated regularly to take into account the changing balance of power in the war for privacy. In fact, I’m busy working on developing such as service right now … so stay tuned!
Offshore and Asset Protection Editor
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