Security

Windows 10 snooping: Microsoft will harvest less data but still awaits nod from watchdog

Microsoft dials back data collection in its flagship OS but one privacy watchdog is still assessing whether the changes go far enough.

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The new privacy settings menu when installing Windows 10.

Image: Microsoft

Microsoft will reduce the amount of data Windows 10 collects on users in an attempt to address concerns that the OS violates user privacy.

Yesterday, Microsoft announced that users running Windows 10 Home and Pro editions will be able to dial back data collection further than is possible today, alongside moves to make it easier to tweak privacy settings in the OS.

The changes to Windows 10, expected to be made in April, follow a year in which the OS was accused of making users "choose between having privacy and security" by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and of violating French data-protection law by a state watchdog.

The lowest level to which users of Windows 10 Home and Pro editions can reduce data collection is 'Basic'.

Following the changes, this Basic option will only collect data "vital to the operation of Windows", according to Terry Myerson, who runs Microsoft's Windows and Devices Group.

Myerson said this reduced data would include information on errors, which apps are installed and "the capabilities of your device". Currently, a Windows 10 system set to Basic level collects information on security settings, crashes, application usage and hardware and software configuration.

SEE: Windows 10 violates your privacy by default, here's how you can protect yourself

Those installing or upgrading to Windows 10 will also see a new menu, shown at the top of this story, which lets them choose the data they are comfortable sending to Microsoft, for example, location data when using maps or voice recordings when using the Cortana virtual assistant.

Previously, the Express Settings option when installing Windows didn't allow users to toggle these privacy settings. However, from the image of the menu, it appears that all the data collection settings are toggled on by default.

An opportunity to tweak these same privacy settings will also be presented to existing Windows 10 users when they upgrade to the forthcoming Creators Update.

Microsoft will also reduce the number of data-collection levels that can be set by Home and Pro edition users. Whereas users could previously choose from Full, Enhanced and Basic levels, in future there will just be Full and Basic. Enterprise, Education and IoT Core edition users can also select the lower 'Security' level of data collection, which reduces telemetry to virtually nothing but stops Window Update from working.

Alongside these changes, Microsoft also yesterday launched a web-based privacy dashboard, which lets Microsoft account holders check the data Microsoft has collected about their use of its various services, covering information related to location, search, browsing and its virtual assistant Cortana.

Many of the privacy-focused changes to Windows 10 appear to address concerns raised by the French privacy watchdog, the chair of the National Data Protection Commission, last year.

The watchdog said Microsoft's flagship OS violated the French data-protection act and gave Microsoft until January 20 to set out how it would comply with the act or face the threat of a fine of up to €150,000 ($158,000).

Speaking today, a spokeswoman for CNIL said it was evaluating whether Windows 10 now complies with French data-protection law.

"Some of the privacy policy changes announced by Microsoft yesterday seem to comply with the CNIL's formal noticed issued July 20," she said.

"CNIL is now analyzing Microsoft's answers in more detail, to know whether all the failures underlined in the formal notice do now comply with the law."

Microsoft's other major privacy critic, the EFF, broadly welcomed the changes to Windows 10's data collection and transparency.

"These are very important and welcome changes when it comes to Windows 10 privacy. I commend the company for listening to user feedback and moving in the right direction," said Amul Kalia of the EFF, who wrote the post criticising Windows 10's approach to privacy last year.

"A big concern for us was the amount of data being collected by Microsoft under each telemetry level and the lack of a way to opt out of it. Though we'd need to examine the concrete details more, today's announcement shows that Microsoft paid attention."

The changes will be rolled out to those testing early builds of Windows under the Insider program and then to the general public with the release of the Creators Update in April.

Read more on Windows 10 and privacy

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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