Reclaim your privacy
Windows 10 has deep cloud hooks and shares a lot of data with Microsoft in order to create a smart, seamless experience across devices. If you prefer some privacy, Ian Paul shows how to disable all of it
Windows 10 is infused with datatracking elements and hooks into Microsoft’s online services. Handing over all that data has some tangible benefits though, such as its OneDrive integration and the Bing-powered brains behind the Cortana digital assistant, but not everyone is thrilled with the idea of Microsoft constantly looking over their digital shoulder.
This guide will show you how to disable Windows 10’s integration, as well as provide tips on what those features actually do. That way you can decide whether you want to keep any of it active or just shut the door on Microsoft’s cloud altogether.
One setting you should consider disabling is Windows 10’s advertising integration. While we don’t mind seeing ads on websites, since that’s what pays for most of the free content we see online, we don’t like is ‘ad personalisation’. We don’t need ads that are supposedly tailored thanks to cookies that track our travels around the web.
Turning off personalised ads in Windows 10 is a two-step process. First, go to Settings > Privacy > General and slide the ‘Let apps use my advertising ID for experience across apps (turning this off will reset your ID)’ option to Off. Next, open your web browser of choice and go to tinyurl.com/ oxu5pky. Select Off in both ‘Personalized ads in this browser’ and ‘Personalized ads wherever I use my Microsoft account’.
Tip: If you are using an ad blocker or an extension such as the EFF’s Privacy Badger (tinyurl.com/ny4eLgj), you may
have to turn it off for this site before you’ll see the option to turn off in-browser ad personalisation. The site has to set a cookie for this second option to work.
Microsoft’s built-in digital assistant is useful for tasks such as quickly setting reminders. The information it collects is similar to that Google does with Google Now, which you may already be using on your Android device. If, however, you don’t like Cortana, it’s easy to turn off, and if you haven’t used Microsoft’s personal assistant, it’s already off.
Click on the Cortana icon in the taskbar, and then on the notebook icon on the left- hand side of the pop-up panel. Select Settings from the list of options that appear. Slide off the ‘Cortana can give you suggestions, ideas, reminders, alerts, and more’ option. Once it’s gone, you’ll see a new option – Search online and include web results. As its title suggests, this includes Bing results when you look for things on your computer. You’ll have to decide whether or not you want that enabled.
It’s also a good idea to jump back into the Settings app’s privacy section. Open Settings and go to Privacy > Speech, inking, and typing. This is a setting that allows Cortana to gather all kinds of information about you to deliver its services. Click the Stop getting to know me button to end that. Note that this will delete collected data stored on your PC, and also turns off dictation functionality.
Once that’s done, click ‘Go to Bing and manage personal info for all your devices’. This is where you can delete any data that Microsoft has collected about you from its servers. Clearing this will affect the performance of Cortana and other personalisation services across your devices and Microsoft services. You can read through
this page to understand what you’re losing, or just jump to the bottom and click Clear.
Wi-Fi Sense and peer-to-peer
Now let’s look at two features of Windows 10 that are innovative, though those who value their privacy may not appreciate them. The first is Wi-Fi Sense. This is turned on by default, but doesn’t do anything unless you explicitly use it. It allows you to share access to password-protected Wi-Fi routers. The passwords are shared silently in the background over encrypted connections. People you share network access with don’t see the passwords, and they are not in turn granted sharing permissions for their friends.
The idea is that if your friends or family come over to your house they don’t have to ask for your password. Instead, anyone with a Windows 10 device and is a digital friend of yours is automatically logged in. This is more secure than sharing your password with anyone who walks through your door. Once a person knows your Wi-Fi password they could share it with others, after all.
To turn Wi-Fi Sense off, go to Settings > Network & Internet > Wi-Fi > Manage Wi-Fi Settings. You’ll see two options: ‘Connect to suggested open hotspots’ and ‘Connect to open networks shared by my contacts’. Slide these to Off.
Moving on, Windows 10 shares system files and updates downloaded to your PC with others by default. This peer-to-peer networking feature helps others get updates and system files faster. In return, your PC also receives updates via other people’s PCs.
If you don’t like the sound of this, go to Settings > Update & Security > Windows Update > Advanced options > Choose how updates are delivered. By default, ‘Updates from more than one place’ is enabled and set to both local sources and other PCs on the internet. You have two additional choices, however – you can distribute updates only to PCs on your local network, or shut off the P2P updates entirely and stick to using Microsoft’s servers alone.
If you want to shut everything off, turn the slider on this screen to Off. If you want to share with PCs on your local network, leave the slider in the On position and select the ‘PCs on my local network’ button.
If you’re not interested in storing your files on Microsoft’s cloud servers, you can turn off OneDrive, so it stops bugging you to configure it. Click the upward-facing arrow in the system tray on the right-hand side of the taskbar. Next, right-click the OneDrive icon and select Settings. In the new window that opens, uncheck ‘Start OneDrive automatically when I sign in to Windows’.
We’ve got the most essential parts of our privacy lockdown finished. It’s now time to look at the privacy options in the Settings app by going to Settings > Privacy.
This is the core of Windows 10’s privacy controls, but most are not as critical as the other items we’ve covered. The exceptions are the remaining items under Privacy > General. Here you’ll want to turn off ‘Send Microsoft info about how I write to help us improve typing and writing in the future’. You may also want to shut off ‘Let websites provide locally relevant content by accessing my language list’.
After taking care of the settings under General, what you’ll mostly see in the remaining sections are methods for apps to access your data.
The Location section lets you control whether apps can use your location to deliver services such as weather forecasts and local news. Location is a little unusual since it can be set both on a per-device or per-user basis. To turn off location for the whole PC, click the Change button. To turn it off for only the logged-in user, turn the ‘Location’ slider to Off (see top right).
You can also control location settings on a per-app basis by scrolling down to ‘Choose apps that can use your location’. After location is taken care of, the rest of
Wi-Fi Sense is turned on by default, but doesn’t do anything unless you explicitly use it. It allows you to share access to password-protected Wi-Fi routers
the settings follow a similar format, allowing you to turn off access to things such as your camera, microphone, contacts and calendar on a systemwide or per-app basis. Keep in mind there may be some things you want to keep on. The Mail app isn’t much use if it can’t access your contacts, for example.
Even if you use Microsoft’s new browser, there might be features, such as Cortana integration and typing prediction, that you may want to disable if you don’t want to send any data back to Microsoft.
Open Edge and click on the menu icon in the far right corner (three horizontal dots) and then go to Settings > View Advanced Settings. Here you have the option to turn off Adobe Flash (something we recommend) and then under ‘Privacy and services’, you can decide to switch off a number of settings. These include: Offer to save passwords entries
and are both turned on by default, which you may not want. They are handy features, though. Have Cortana assist me in Microsoft Edge
lets Cortana work inside the browser. If you’ve already switched off Windows’ personal assistant, then you definitely don’t want this feature turned on.
Show search suggestions as I type
uses Microsoft’s web-powered prediction service to try and work out what you’re searching for and then fill it in automatically. Chrome and the standard version of Google search offer something similar, so you may already use this elsewhere. Use page prediction to speed up browsing, improve reading and make my overall experience better
is similar to search suggestions in that it sends your browsing history to Microsoft. The company says this feature “uses aggregated browsing history data to predict which pages you’re likely to browse to next, and then loads those pages in the background for a faster browsing experience”. If you don’t like the sound of this, you should turn it off. Help protect me from malicious sites and downloads with SmartScreen filter lets Microsoft block malicious sites and downloads from infecting your PC. This feature allows the tech giant to download a list of suspicious URLs to your PC, so Edge can block those sites. However, with SmartScreen active, whenever you land on a malicious website, you will be redirected to a Microsoft web page that will gather some PC information and the web address of the page you visited. If you ask us, the SmartScreen filter is pretty benign and well worth keeping activated.
For more information, go to Microsoft’s Edge privacy FAQ at tinyurl.com/pwzmcs8.
Control Panel SmartScreen
There are three SmartScreen filters in Windows 10. The second of these is in the Control Panel and stops you from installing potentially malicious desktop programs on your PC. It first appeared in Windows 8.
To offer this security feature, however, you have to share with Microsoft information about the programs you download and install, though you do so anonymously.
Advanced users may want to just disable this feature as it tends to be a nuisance. We’d strongly advise that novice and intermediate users leave SmartScreen as it is, though. To disable it, right-click the Start menu button and select Control Panel from the context
The Location section lets you control whether apps can use your location to deliver services such as local news, and can be set both on a per-device or per-user basis
menu. Then, with the category view enabled, go to System and Security > Security and Maintenance. Select Change Windows SmartScreen settings from the left-side pane.
In the window that opens, select the button next to ‘Don’t do anything (turn off Windows SmartScreen)’.
Windows 10 and the web
We’re almost done. Just two more sections to go, although the last one is only for the hardcore privacy types. First we want to deal with some odds and ends.
We’ll start by examining the way that Windows 10 syncs your personalised settings across devices, including your desktop background, web browser settings, saved passwords, language preferences, ease of access, and other Windows settings.
The ability to sit down with any Windows 10 device, log in with your Microsoft account, and have all your settings and preferences immediately show up is incredibly handy. But if you’d rather not store all that information in Microsoft’s servers, the easiest thing to do here is just turn off the ‘Sync settings’ option, found under Settings > Accounts > Sync your settings. If you want to take a more fine-grain approach, then you can drill down into the synced items under ‘Individual sync settings’.
Finally, let’s move on to the Windows Store SmartScreen Filter – go to Settings > Privacy > General. Like its Edge counterpart, it checks the URLs of Windows Store apps and makes sure they’re not up to anything fishy. It’s a security measure that is worth turning on. But if you’d rather not use it, go to Settings > Privacy > General and slide the ‘Turn on SmartScreen Filter to check web content (URLs) that Windows Store apps use’ option to Off.
Our final tip concerns using Windows 10 with a local account. Go to Settings > Accounts > Your account and select ‘Sign in with a local account instead’. Follow the wizard to start using a local account on your PC – one that isn’t tied to your Microsoft account. Using a local account will still let you access some of Windows 10’s built-in features, such as the Mail app, though you may also lose access to others that require a Microsoft account, such as the Windows Store. You also can’t sync your settings to other Windows devices, but if privacy is your main concern, then you’ve probably already turned off this option.
So there you have it: all the privacy steps you need to take to keep Windows 10 firmly planted on the desktop and not the cloud. It’s admittedly a lot of work, but the good news is it only takes a few minutes to stay local once you know what you need to do.
Using a local account will still let you access some of Windows 10’s built-in features, though you may also lose access to others that require a Microsoft account