February 16, 2016
Worried that Windows 10 is ‘spying’ on you? Here’s how to take back control
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.
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.
“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.