Windows 10 Privacy FAQ: What you want to know about your personal data in the OS

Windows 10 Privacy FAQ: What you want to know about your personal data in the OS

Nothing gets people nervous like the clammy realization that your personal technology is cheerily transmitting your most intimate data -- from your thoughts and words to your location to your method of touch-typing -- to databases somewhere far away.

With the advent of Windows 10 and its super-helpful digital personal assistant Cortana, plus its emphasis on cloud-based data that is automatically uploaded without you thinking about it, several people have gotten nervous that Big Bing is watching you.

Here is the Windows 10 privacy FAQ, based on what we know now.


Q. Surely no other tech company is as invasive as Microsoft is?

A. Microsoft is not the only company that uses your personal information to modify how its products work with and for you. For example, Apple logs your comings and goings:

When you use any location-based features within Maps, such as traffic or local search, various location-related and usage information may be sent to Apple, including the real-time geographic location of your computer, in order to process your request and help improve Maps. Such location and usage data is collected by Apple in a form that does not personally identify you.

And Google is fairly up-front about what it's logging and why:

Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection

Q. What sort of data is Microsoft collecting anyway?

A. Looking at the Microsoft Terms of Service, here's what they define as "data":

  • A search query to Bing,
  • A voice command to Cortana
  • A document uploaded to OneDrive
  • A support request to Microsoft
  • Cookies, error reports or usage data from software running on your device
  • Your first and last name, email address, postal address, phone number, and other similar contact data
  • Passwords, password hints, and "similar security information"
  • The contacts you have and communicate with if you use a Microsoft service to manage your contacts or communicate
  • Your age, gender, country and preferred language
  • The teams you follow in a sports app, the stocks you track in a finance app, or the favorite cities you add to a weather app
  • A credit card number and the security code associated with it
  • The items you purchase, the web pages you visit, and the search terms you enter
  • The subject line and body of an email (provided you're using a Microsoft product or service to send that email)
  • The text or other content of an instant message (provided you're using a Microsoft product or service to send that message)
  • The audio and video recording of a video message (provided you're using a Microsoft product or service to send that message)
  • Audio recording and transcript of a voice message you receive or a text message you dictate
  • Data about any social network accounts that are linked to your Microsoft account

Q. So Cortana's basically collecting all sorts of information about me constantly, right?

A. Not without your permission, she's not. Any data Cortana uses is only through explicit permission from the user – nothing automatic without activating Cortana and choosing to set up your Interests in the Cortana notebook. If she has a new feature for tracking something then she will pop up a request and ask if you want her to track that. If a user never chooses to use Cortana she does not send any info to MS.

If you use Microsoft Edge, Cortana will collect and use your browsing history. This information is tracked, saved and stored in your Cortana Notebook and on your dashboard.

Q. Does Microsoft ever get rid of any of the data it stores?

A. Sometimes. Here are some of the ways in which they'll declutter your data:

  • In Bing: After six months, Microsoft removes the IP address from queries after 6 months and cookie IDs and other cross-session identifiers after 18 months.
  • In Outlook: If you empty your Deleted Items folder, the items in there are scrubbed from Microsoft's systems after 30 days.
  • In Cortana: You can edit or remove individual items in the Notebook and on the dashboard. To add or remove information or interests to your Cortana Notebook, go to Cortana > Notebook, and then select About meTo add or remove information on your dashboard, go to Cortana > Notebook > Settings, and then select Manage what Cortana knows about me in the cloud.
  • To clear all of your information that’s saved online in the dashboard, go to Cortana > Notebook > Settings, and then select Manage what Cortana knows about me in the cloud. Then do one or all of the following:
    • Under Interests, select Clear.
    • Under Saved places, select Bing Maps and follow the instructions to clear your saved places.
    • Under Search history, select Search History page and clear specific items, or select Clear All.
    • Under Other Cortana Data and Personalized Speech, Inking and Typing, select Clear.

Q. Is Microsoft using all that data to sell me to advertising companies?

A. No. They say:

"No matter what privacy options you choose, neither Windows 10 nor any other Microsoft software scans the content of your email or other communications, or your files, in order to deliver targeted advertising to you."

Q. Is Microsoft using all that data to sell me to third-party companies?

A. No -- you're doing that to yourself, if you choose to connect to Facebook, etc.

Q. Is there any global control panel where I can opt out of sharing any of the data Microsoft's collecting?

A. Of course not. That would be too easy. You have to go to separate places, depending on the accounts you want to control. Here's the short list:

If the links above don't work, contact Microsoft here. They say they'll respond to your request within 30 days.

Q. Seriously? There's no global privacy setting?

A. Nope — but since Windows 10 has prompted a lot of privacy concerns, we have a nifty tour of how to find and set the privacy settings in your Windows 10 system.

Among the items you can control:

  • Whether or not apps can access your calendar 
  • Whether or not apps can access your camera 
  • Whether or not apps can access your contacts 
  • Which accounts you want to connect to Cortana 
  • Whether or not you will send diagnostic data to Microsoft when apps crash 
  • Whether or not you'll be using location services 
  • Which apps can read or send messages 
  • Whether or not Microsoft can access "info about how you write to help [them] improve typing and writing in the future" (i.e. keylogging).

Microsoft has clarified the last one as "a sample of characters and words you type, changes you manually make to text, and words you add to your dictionary," and you can turn off their analysis of your writing style by going to Settings > Privacy > Speech, inking, & typing.

Q. How about if I sync across devices? Are my privacy settings the same no matter whether I'm using a phone, a tablet or a computer?

A. Why, yes! They are, provided you're using a Microsoft account to sign into a Windows device. And if you change settings on one device, your changes will sync across all devices linked to your account.

All your sync options live at Settings > Accounts > Sync your settings. 

Q. Hey, I happen to have 15 minutes. Can you give me a crash course on how to tweak my data and what I share?

A. Sure! Check out our video tour of the Windows 10 privacy settings.

Q. I can't watch videos at work. Can you tell me what I should be doing, in fifteen sentences or less?

A. Sure! If you haven't yet installed Windows 10, you can set all your privacy preferences during the installation process, by clicking the Customize Settings link in the installation screen. You'll be able to set your speech/inking/typing preferences, your ad personalization preferences ("no ads at all" is not an option) and your location services. You'll also be able to set your Internet browsing preferences and your software error reporting.

If you've already installed Windows 10, you can go to the Settings > Privacy setting and work from there.

And then, you'll also have to tweak settings in individual apps, including Cortana, Microsoft Edge, Windows Hello, and Windows Update.

Q. What happens if I turn off all the privacy settings in Windows 10 between the OS and apps, then choose only to send Basic data to Microsoft? Will Windows 10 work? Or is all the cool stuff basically gone?

A. … Sort of the latter? Most of the  personalization and customization aspects will be unavailable, and certain features of the OS will not work properly. For example, turning off your location means the Weather app cannot automatically provide you the weather for your locale. But for you, "my computer tells me whether it's raining" my not actually count as a cool feature and you'll be able to appreciate Windows 10 for the improved interface experience.

In this configuration only the most basic, anonymous info is shared with Microsoft to report errors, bugs and crash data.

Q. Sure, this FAQ is informative, but can you link to Microsoft's official takes on all this?

A. Of course. Here are links to their different privacy pages:



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