February 16, 2016

Worried that Windows 10 is ‘spying’ on you? Here’s how to take back control

There is no evidence to suggest that Windows 10 is “spying” on you, but if network analysis of the telemetry data isn’t enough to put your mind at ease, here are a couple of tools that may help.

 

I love the X-Files, and I enjoy a conspiracy theory as much as the other guy, but there needs to be evidence, and I’ve seen more far compelling evidence for the existence of Bigfoot, the Roswell crash, or the Lost City of Atlantis than I have for the allegation that Microsoft is using Windows 10 to spy on users.

And believe you me, I’ve spent countless hours searching for a smoking gun, with no success. Like my ZDNet colleague Simon Bisson, all I found was innocuous telemetry data.

This is why I’ve put the word “spying” in quotation marks in the title, and I’m only using this word because this is the word most commonly used by those concerned by this issue.

If you ask me whether I’m worried about using Windows 10, my answer would be “no.” I have dozens of Windows 10 installations here and I’m not in the least bit worried.

But despite such reassurances, there are a lot of people who are concerned by this, and the fact that Microsoft isn’t willing to give concerned users an official way to opt out from data collection (which I think is a bad idea) is adding fuel to the flames. After all, as Bisson pointed out, we live in “justifiably paranoid times,” where governments and social media sites are slurping up user data.

What’s wrong with a little protection?

If you are worried about Windows 10 privacy, I suggest that you take matters into your own hands and install a tool that allows you to shut down all the different ways that your PC is communicating with Microsoft. Be aware though that doing this will result in some features no longer being available, since a number of Windows 10 features rely on having a connection to the cloud.

Be careful though. I’ve come across a number of “Windows 10 privacy tools” from unknown sources that do who knows what. Some tools actively display ads, and one even installs a third-party tool that displays ads in other applications. Talk about taking what is a non-issue and blowing it up into a real problem! No self-respecting privacy tool should install adware onto a system. Period.

I’ve tried a number of Windows 10 privacy tools and boiled them down to two.

The first is Spybot Anti-Beacon. This is a one-click solution (along with an undo button in case things don’t go as you planned) from a known developer that’s been in the privacy business since 2000.

Still worried that Windows 10 is 'spying' on you?

Another tool that I like is O&O Shut Up 10. This one is particularly useful if you have multiple PCs because it doesn’t need to be installed and can be run from a USB flash drive. O&O also offers a good explanation as to why Windows 10 needs to be able to communicate with the cloud.

Still worried that Windows 10 is 'spying' on you?

“As an example, Windows 10 can remind you to set off to the airport 30 minutes earlier due to traffic en route. In order to deliver this information to you, however, Windows 10 has to access your calendar entries, your mails (i.e. the airline confirmation email), your location and it has to have access to the internet to get traffic news.”

I’ve tested both of these tools on a variety of systems and both utilities seem to do what it says it does on the tin, and nothing more.

If nothing else, they put you in charge of what happens to your data. If something stops working (or you break something) as a result of using these tools, well, that probably explains why Microsoft doesn’t want you to have this sort of granular control over communications to and from your PC.

And if you’re still worried, then fire up your PC, install Wireshark, and examine the packets yourself.

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July 27, 2013

How Microsoft handed the NSA access to encrypted messages

 

• Secret files show scale of Silicon Valley co-operation on Prism
• Outlook.com encryption unlocked even before official launch
• Skype worked to enable Prism collection of video calls
• Company says it is legally compelled to comply

 
 
Skype logo

Skype worked with intelligence agencies last year to allow Prism to collect video and audio conversations. Photograph: Patrick Sinkel/AP

Microsoft has collaborated closely with US intelligence services to allow users’ communications to be intercepted, including helping the National Security Agency to circumvent the company’s own encryption, according to top-secret documents obtained by the Guardian.

The files provided by Edward Snowden illustrate the scale of co-operation between Silicon Valley and the intelligence agencies over the last three years. They also shed new light on the workings of the top-secret Prism program, which was disclosed by the Guardian and the Washington Post last month.

The documents show that:

• Microsoft helped the NSA to circumvent its encryption to address concerns that the agency would be unable to intercept web chats on the new Outlook.com portal;

• The agency already had pre-encryption stage access to email on Outlook.com, including Hotmail;

• The company worked with the FBI this year to allow the NSA easier access via Prism to its cloud storage service SkyDrive, which now has more than 250 million users worldwide;

• Microsoft also worked with the FBI’s Data Intercept Unit to “understand” potential issues with a feature in Outlook.com that allows users to create email aliases;

• In July last year, nine months after Microsoft bought Skype, the NSA boasted that a new capability had tripled the amount of Skype video calls being collected through Prism;

• Material collected through Prism is routinely shared with the FBI and CIA, with one NSA document describing the program as a “team sport”.

The latest NSA revelations further expose the tensions between Silicon Valley and the Obama administration. All the major tech firms are lobbying the government to allow them to disclose more fully the extent and nature of their co-operation with the NSA to meet their customers’ privacy concerns. Privately, tech executives are at pains to distance themselves from claims of collaboration and teamwork given by the NSA documents, and insist the process is driven by legal compulsion.

In a statement, Microsoft said: “When we upgrade or update products we aren’t absolved from the need to comply with existing or future lawful demands.” The company reiterated its argument that it provides customer data “only in response to government demands and we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers”.

In June, the Guardian revealed that the NSA claimed to have “direct access” through the Prism program to the systems of many major internet companies, including Microsoft, Skype, Apple, Google, Facebook and Yahoo.

Blanket orders from the secret surveillance court allow these communications to be collected without an individual warrant if the NSA operative has a 51% belief that the target is not a US citizen and is not on US soil at the time. Targeting US citizens does require an individual warrant, but the NSA is able to collect Americans’ communications without a warrant if the target is a foreign national located overseas.

Since Prism’s existence became public, Microsoft and the other companies listed on the NSA documents as providers have denied all knowledge of the program and insisted that the intelligence agencies do not have back doors into their systems.

Microsoft’s latest marketing campaign, launched in April, emphasizes its commitment to privacy with the slogan: “Your privacy is our priority.”

Similarly, Skype’s privacy policy states: “Skype is committed to respecting your privacy and the confidentiality of your personal data, traffic data and communications content.”

But internal NSA newsletters, marked top secret, suggest the co-operation between the intelligence community and the companies is deep and ongoing.

The latest documents come from the NSA’s Special Source Operations (SSO) division, described by Snowden as the “crown jewel” of the agency. It is responsible for all programs aimed at US communications systems through corporate partnerships such as Prism.

The files show that the NSA became concerned about the interception of encrypted chats on Microsoft’s Outlook.com portal from the moment the company began testing the service in July last year.

Within five months, the documents explain, Microsoft and the FBI had come up with a solution that allowed the NSA to circumvent encryption on Outlook.com chats

A newsletter entry dated 26 December 2012 states: “MS [Microsoft], working with the FBI, developed a surveillance capability to deal” with the issue. “These solutions were successfully tested and went live 12 Dec 2012.”

Two months later, in February this year, Microsoft officially launched the Outlook.com portal.

Another newsletter entry stated that NSA already had pre-encryption access to Outlook email. “For Prism collection against Hotmail, Live, and Outlook.com emails will be unaffected because Prism collects this data prior to encryption.”

Microsoft’s co-operation was not limited to Outlook.com. An entry dated 8 April 2013 describes how the company worked “for many months” with the FBI – which acts as the liaison between the intelligence agencies and Silicon Valley on Prism – to allow Prism access without separate authorization to its cloud storage service SkyDrive.

The document describes how this access “means that analysts will no longer have to make a special request to SSO for this – a process step that many analysts may not have known about”.

The NSA explained that “this new capability will result in a much more complete and timely collection response”. It continued: “This success is the result of the FBI working for many months with Microsoft to get this tasking and collection solution established.”

A separate entry identified another area for collaboration. “The FBI Data Intercept Technology Unit (DITU) team is working with Microsoft to understand an additional feature in Outlook.com which allows users to create email aliases, which may affect our tasking processes.”

The NSA has devoted substantial efforts in the last two years to work with Microsoft to ensure increased access to Skype, which has an estimated 663 million global users.

One document boasts that Prism monitoring of Skype video production has roughly tripled since a new capability was added on 14 July 2012. “The audio portions of these sessions have been processed correctly all along, but without the accompanying video. Now, analysts will have the complete ‘picture’,” it says.

Eight months before being bought by Microsoft, Skype joined the Prism program in February 2011.

According to the NSA documents, work had begun on smoothly integrating Skype into Prism in November 2010, but it was not until 4 February 2011 that the company was served with a directive to comply signed by the attorney general.

The NSA was able to start tasking Skype communications the following day, and collection began on 6 February. “Feedback indicated that a collected Skype call was very clear and the metadata looked complete,” the document stated, praising the co-operation between NSA teams and the FBI. “Collaborative teamwork was the key to the successful addition of another provider to the Prism system.”

ACLU technology expert Chris Soghoian said the revelations would surprise many Skype users. “In the past, Skype made affirmative promises to users about their inability to perform wiretaps,” he said. “It’s hard to square Microsoft’s secret collaboration with the NSA with its high-profile efforts to compete on privacy with Google.”

The information the NSA collects from Prism is routinely shared with both the FBI and CIA. A 3 August 2012 newsletter describes how the NSA has recently expanded sharing with the other two agencies.

The NSA, the entry reveals, has even automated the sharing of aspects of Prism, using software that “enables our partners to see which selectors [search terms] the National Security Agency has tasked to Prism”.

The document continues: “The FBI and CIA then can request a copy of Prism collection of any selector…” As a result, the author notes: “these two activities underscore the point that Prism is a team sport!”

In its statement to the Guardian, Microsoft said:

We have clear principles which guide the response across our entire company to government demands for customer information for both law enforcement and national security issues. First, we take our commitments to our customers and to compliance with applicable law very seriously, so we provide customer data only in response to legal processes.

Second, our compliance team examines all demands very closely, and we reject them if we believe they aren’t valid. Third, we only ever comply with orders about specific accounts or identifiers, and we would not respond to the kind of blanket orders discussed in the press over the past few weeks, as the volumes documented in our most recent disclosure clearly illustrate.

Finally when we upgrade or update products legal obligations may in some circumstances require that we maintain the ability to provide information in response to a law enforcement or national security request. There are aspects of this debate that we wish we were able to discuss more freely. That’s why we’ve argued for additional transparency that would help everyone understand and debate these important issues.

In a joint statement, Shawn Turner, spokesman for the director of National Intelligence, and Judith Emmel, spokeswoman for the NSA, said:

The articles describe court-ordered surveillance – and a US company’s efforts to comply with these legally mandated requirements. The US operates its programs under a strict oversight regime, with careful monitoring by the courts, Congress and the Director of National Intelligence. Not all countries have equivalent oversight requirements to protect civil liberties and privacy.

They added: “In practice, US companies put energy, focus and commitment into consistently protecting the privacy of their customers around the world, while meeting their obligations under the laws of the US and other countries in which they operate.”

• This article was amended on 11 July 2013 to reflect information from Microsoft that it did not make any changes to Skype to allow Prism collection on or around July 2012.

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May 8, 2012

TuneUp Utilities 2012 Review

TuneUp Utilities 2012 is the latest version of one of the most popular Windows system optimization and tweaking program. Every year it is getting perfected with new unique features added to the program. TuneUp Utilities 2012 features all the functions that were present in the earlier version, viz, TuneUp Utilities 2011 (which we have reviewed earlier). Along with all those features, two notable features added to the latest version are TuneUp Economy Mode and TuneUp Program Deactivator.

TuneUp Economy Mode will extend the battery life of notebook, netbook and tablet computers by shutting off processes and hardware components that aren’t required or in use. TuneUp Economy Mode is the new introduced feature of 2012 while TuneUp Program Deactivator, introduced in 2011 version, has gone through major overhauling in 2012 edition. Both TuneUp Economy Mode and TuneUp Program Deactivator, when used in combination can boost the energy efficiency of Windows 7 systems by up to 30 percent, when compared with the Windows 7 built-in energy savings mode.

With today’s increasing computing power, multi-core processors and gigabytes of RAM, many users will argue if they need a system optimization program? But, many users will agree with us that even with so much of computation power in hand, Windows tends to become sluggish after usage. Microsoft promises to change this scenario with its upcoming Windows 8 operating system but until than we are left with trusted system optimization utilities like TuneUp Utilities.

Since we have already reviewed TuneUp Utilities 2011 and most of the tools, although improved, have remained same in TuneUp Utilities 2012, in this review we will concentrate only on the most notable two features (discussed above). You can go through the thorough review of TuneUp Utilities 2011 here to know in-depth about what it offers.

At the end of this review (after break), you will find a giveaway contest, through which you can win a free license of TuneUp Utilities 2012 worth $49.95. 5 licenses are up for the giveaway, so the total licenses worth approx $250 (exactly $249.75). More on that later. :)

A quick walk-through…

TuneUp Utilities 2012 User Interface

The installation was very straight forward, after which, TuneUp Utilities immediately launched its 1-Click Maintenance tool. The tool quickly checks for Windows Registry errors, broken shortcuts, temporary files (but Recycle Bin), Windows startup and shutdown problems, disk fragmentation and so on. A report of everything found, is provided after the analysis and you can then fix the issues with a single click.

As we have seen earlier with 2011, the tools are divided into five tabs:

  • Status & recommendations: shows you an overview of the current condition of your system and gives you recommendations on how you can improve the system’s health.
  • Optimize system: disable or uninstall unwanted programs and clean up your system and your data.
  • Gain disk space: you can delete unnecessary data systematically from your system.
  • Fix problems: you will find simple solutions for any problems that might occur.
  • Customize Windows: you can configure how your Windows should look and function, thereby personalizing your computer.

For advance users or for quickly finding a tool, you can click on “Overview of all functions” option. This option gives you a list of all functions that TuneUp Utilities offers. If you click on the wrench icon next to a tool, it opens the settings for that tool.

TuneUp Program Deactivator

Many Windows programs like Microsoft Office adds services, startup programs and other tasks which slows down the system and hampers performance, even though we don’t need those services or programs to start with Windows. If uninstalling the program is not an option than the revamped version of Program Deactivator might be able to help you.

Simply launch Program Deactivator and a list of installed programs is displayed along with its performance impact on your PC. We have already seen earlier in TuneUp Utilities 2011, that it really works and improves performance of the system.

What’s new in TuneUp Utilities 2012 edition of Program Deactivator is the TuneUp Programs-on-Demand Technology, in layman terms the “Automatic” function. Simply keep the function on, and if you launch a “deactivated” program then TuneUp Utilities 2012 will automatically disable this again once you’ve closed it down. Thus it keeps your system in top performance always.

Even though your mileage may vary when using this tool. But if your system is packed up with programs (like ours), TuneUp Program Deactivator will surely help you gain performance.

TuneUp Economy Mode

Windows 7 is optimized to conserve power but it is still not fully optimized. As the number of background process, service or scheduled task increases, the impact on the power can also be felt. This prevents devices from entering low-power (or idle) modes. TuneUp Economy Mode prevents PC hardware components from delivering too much power when it’s not really needed. Once TuneUp Economy Mode is active, all non-essential background processes and services are disabled to reduce power usage. The settings are very easy to configure. In our tests, we have seen an increase in battery life.

Conclusion

In our tests on a laptop running Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) on Core i5, 4GB RAM, 640GB HDD, boot time fell by around 10 percent, RAM usage fell from 40 percent to 35 percent. Overall, system performance was improved and we actually found our applications launching faster.

You can test TuneUp Utilities 2012 for yourself and see the system performance improvements yourself. The software is available for Windows XP, Vista and 7 (32-bit and 64-bit editions) and can be downloaded from TuneUp Utilities official website for free.

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March 21, 2012

Manually Create the “Volume Mixer” Shortcut

1. Right click on a empty area on desktop, and click on New and Shortcut.

2. Copy and paste the location below into the location area, and click on the Next button. (see screenshot below)

%windir%\System32\SndVol.exe -r 49490633

Volume Mixer Shortcut - Create-step1.jpg

3. Type Volume Mixer for the name, and click on the Finish button. (see screenshot below)
NOTE: You can name this anything you would like though.

Volume Mixer Shortcut - Create-step2.jpg

4. You can now Pin to Taskbar or Pin to Start Menu this shortcut, assign a keyboard shortcut to it, or move it where you like for easy use.

That's it,
Shawn

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March 17, 2012

Got Windows 64-bit and want the latest Firefox? Try Waterfox 11 instead

Hot on the heels of the slightly delayed official unveiling of Firefox 11 FINAL comes  Waterfox 11.0 , an optimized build of the Firefox source code for Windows 64-bit users.

Waterfox 11.0 contains exactly the same updates as Firefox 11 (see below), plus one major change of its own, a switch from AMD’s Core Math Library (ACML) to the AMD LibM library, which is optimized for 64-bit processors.

Aside from the change to AMD LibM library, Waterfox 11.0 has also been compiled with a new set of flags from the original Firefox 11.0 source code, which should help improve performance further. Other changes, as expected, simply mirror what are already present in Firefox 11.

These include limited support for importing data from Google Chrome, the ability to synchronize add-ons via Firefox Sync, updated support for various HTML5 and CSS standards and redesigned media controls for HTML5 video. Waterfox 11 also includes the two enhancements for developers: a CSS Style Inspector and Tilt (3D) view for HTML pages.

64-bit users wishing to switch to Waterfox 11.0 will need to install 64-bit versions of JavaAdobe Flash Player and, if required,  Microsoft Silverlight .

Note that Waterfox uses exactly the same preferences and user files as Firefox, which makes switching painless on the one hand, but does mean you should uninstall the program with care should you wish to revert back to the 32-bit version of Firefox: make sure you deselect any option to delete your personal preferences and files before proceeding to remove the program.

Waterfox 11.0 is a free download for PCs running 64-bit versions of Windows XP, Vista and 7. Other users looking for a version of Firefox that has been optimized for speed and performance should check out  Pale Moon 9.2 instead. Although not as updated as frequently as Firefox itself, Pale Moon’s developer has  hinted that a new build based on Firefox 11 may surface this month.

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