Privacy & Security

Microsoft Takes Heat Over Data Privacy for Windows 10 System

By Sean Cavanagh — October 01, 2015 4 min read
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Cross-posted from the Marketplace K-12 blog

As technology companies working in schools have taken a public beating over their data-privacy policies, the Microsoft Corp.'s image on the issue has remained comparatively unscathed.

In fact, Microsoft officials have boasted publicly of their company’s commitment to strong data safeguards, presenting it as a core piece of their brand.

But now the giant U.S. tech company is catching heat for what critics see as overly aggressive data-collection through its newly unveiled operating system, Windows 10.

Microsoft officials say critics’ fears are overblown. But chatter over Windows 10’s privacy policies ballooned to such a degree in recent months that Terry Myerson, executive of the company’s Windows and devices group, was compelled to write a blog post this week meant to clarify what information the system is collecting, and what it is not.

Microsoft has been a major player in K-12 districts through selling its operating system to school users. It has a presence in other parts of the school market, too, including through its Office 365 for Educators tool suite, and through its sale of computing devices.

The company is marketing the new operating system to schools, saying that it facilitates the juggling of multiple tasks, live collaboration and other features. Microsoft declares that Windows 10 “empowers staff, administrators, teachers, and students.”

Windows 10 has been offered as a free upgrade to users of Windows 8.1, an operating system that along with version 8.0 has been subject to scorn from many consumers and tech critics. Those systems used a hybrid of tablet-touchscreen and traditional PC-type features. Many in the tech community have said Windows 10 is akin to an enhanced version of the more popular Windows 7. But the privacy controversy, at least in some quarters, has taken some of the shine off.

Consumer advocates have cited several privacy concerns about Windows 10. They say the system will allow Microsoft to collect and share personal information about users for the company’s use—information about calendars, contacts, and appointments, for instance. Users can take steps to disable those information-sharing features, but they have to navigate several steps to shut them all down.

Even after those functions are disabled, Microsoft will still collect other data from the time you open the start menu and begin typing, notes CNN Money. The company says it’s simply gathering information about how you search for information, which will streamline user experience.

Others have said Microsoft’s “Windows Update Delivery Optimization,” essentially allows users to borrow bandwidth from other users they don’t know when updating their apps or PCs, when they would otherwise have trouble connecting to Microsoft’s servers. CNN Money calls the system a “potentially brilliant” way to allow people to update their devices faster than they otherwise might, but it says Microsoft hasn’t been upfront in explaining how that process works.

Worries about privacy on Windows 10 have led users of the system and tech reviewers to share tips on how to disable certain functions and keep privacy settings to their liking.

A recent story in Slate offers that advice. Its title: “Broken Windows Theory: Microsoft’s Windows 10 is a privacy nightmare. Here’s how to protect yourself.”

Selling a ‘Personalized’ Experience

In a response to critics, Microsoft’s Myerson wrote that the company is collecting the information only so that that users’ experience is enhanced—not for advertising. (Collecting data for potential advertising is a critique that has been levied at Google and numerous other tech providers. Last April, Google announced that it had halted the practice of scanning student Gmail accounts for any potential advertising purposes)

Other information Microsoft collects is designed to ensure the reliability of applications on the operating system, and to correct flaws that would produce crashes, Myerson argued. (That particular information does not include personal data.)

Information on the preferences of Windows’ users, meanwhile, are collected to create a “personalized Windows experience” designed to tailor the system to individual users, the Microsoft official said. Examples of that data could include “remembering the common words you type in text messaging conversations,” or knowing whether you’re a fan of this or that sports team, Myerson explained.

Users are in control of the information Microsoft collects and they “can update [their] settings at any time,” he said.

“Trust is a core pillar of [the company’s vision] and we know we have to earn it,” said Myerson, adding, “I assure you no other company is more committed, transparent, and listening harder to customers on this important topic than we are.”

We’ll know more about whether users of Windows 10 buy Microsoft’s reasoning, and feel confident their data is protected, in the months to come.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.