Ever since the advent of Windows 10, Microsoft has been accused by many of making a concerted effort to spy on users and collect their personal information. While much of that has been over-hyped around the internet, it is true that the default Windows 10 Privacy settings make it the most intrusive operating system ever to come out of Redmond, WA and a privacy threat.
Overview of Windows 10 Privacy Issues
So what’s the big deal? Is Windows 10 really a privacy nightmare? Early on the operating system got a lot of flack due to the amount of data it collects on users – and even more for the lack of transparency of what data they are collecting and the lack of control a user has to decide what data they want to share with Microsoft.
Microsoft collects data from you, through our interactions with you and through our products. You provide some of this data directly, and we get some of it by collecting data about your interactions, use, and experiences with our products. The data we collect depends on the context of your interactions with Microsoft and the choices you make, including your privacy settings and the products and features you use. We also obtain data about you from third parties.
Oh, and they share your data too…with or without your consent.
It is understandable that a software company wants to get diagnostic data and some anonymized usage data to improve and trouble shoot its products, which Windows 10 does. But collecting personal data and not disclosing exactly what they collect or what they do with it is a big red flag. As is not allowing you to control what you share and giving you the tools to delete or opt-out.
Recent updates to Windows 10 have included better controls and transparency to the data collection, but not nearly enough for privacy advocates. It’s default settings are to collect as much data as possible and it’s up to the individual user to educate themselves and understand what these settings mean and figure out how to turn them off, if possible.
Fear not, I’m going to walk you through exactly how to change your Windows 10 privacy settings so you are sharing the least amount of data with Microsoft. Unfortunately you can’t shut off the tap completely, but we’ll do the best we can.
You may have to make some choices between privacy and convenience when reviewing these settings. I’ll give you the options, you make the choice of which is more important to you.
Let’s get started!
Change These Windows 10 Settings To Reclaim Your Privacy
We’ll take a look at the biggest privacy offenders first (Yes, I’m looking at you Cortana) and then move on to the more granular individual settings to really lock things down.
Turn off your advertising ID
Microsoft didn’t invent the collecting of personal data to better target users with ads, but they certainty profit from it. With Windows 10 they took it to a new level and started assigning users an advertising ID and began collecting data inside the applications you use on the computer.
That data is shared with application developers and undisclosed advertising networks who will no doubt be building a shadow profile on you to target ads and possibly sell your data.
Let’s go ahead and shut down this tracking.
To turn off ad tracking in Windows 10 go to Settings > Privacy > General and set the toggle to “off” to not allow apps to use your advertising id to personalize ads.
Turning this off only affects interest-based advertising data collection for Windows and the applications. It does not stop other applications like your browser, search engines, or using the web while being logged into your Microsoft account. They all need to be addressed individually.
While you are there it is a good idea to turn off the other three toggles:
>> Let websites provide locally relevant content by accessing my language list. If you aren’t an English feature it may add some convenience for you, but I’d turn it off anyway.
>> Let Windows track app launches to improve Start and search results
>> Show me suggested content in the Settings app
Turn off your location info
Microsoft keeps track of your location history by default (bad Microsoft!). It says it does so to improve its location based services and to provide some convenience features like Find My Device, MS Maps, localized weather in it’s Weather app, and local news in the News app.
While some of those features are great to have on your cell phone, do you really need it on your computer?
But it’s also building a database of everywhere your computer has been (exact gps coordinates) and that’s not data they need to have. I’d recommend not sharing any location data at all and turning it off.
Go to Settings > Privacy > Location and turn off “Allow access to location on this device.”
A little further down there is a button to “Clear location history on this device.” Click that. We’ll go into how to clear the data Microsoft has already collected (if you’ve been signed in with a Microsoft account) in the Privacy Dashboard section at the end of the article.
If you really need to have the location history on for a particular application, at least turn off access to the other applications. This won’t stop Microsoft from collecting your location history but will stop other apps from getting access to it.
Turn off Activity History / Timeline
When I first upgraded to Windows 10 I had no idea that Activity History was a thing. Then one day I clicked this button and saw a list of pretty much everything I’d been doing or using on that computer. I’m sure a lot of people still don’t know this data is being saved and sent to Microsoft.
If you don’t know where to find the Activity History it’s this button here.
I don’t like creepy tracking software, nor do I need a list of everything I’ve done since the beginning of time, so I turned off the whole feature. Which I’d recommend. If you choose to leave activity history collecting data, make sure it is not sharing the data with Microsoft.
Activity history helps keep track of the things you do on your device, such as the apps and services you use, the files you open, and the websites you browse. Your activity history is stored locally on your device, and if you’ve signed in to your device with a Microsoft account and given your permission, Windows sends your activity history to Microsoft.
Turn off activity history. Do you really want Microsoft to know about that search you did for hemorrhoids and have it saved to their profile on you? I mean the search was really for a “friend” after all.
Go to: Settings > Privacy > Activity History and uncheck the two boxes. Then clear your history (clears only your device) for good measure .
Ah, Cortana. The Jan Brady of digital assistants. Compared to its rivals Siri and Google Assistant it doesn’t get much attention. And things didn’t get any better for it with the demise of the Windows phone in 2017. Cortana has been relegated to the desktop (or if you liked it so much you installed the app on your phone), where it leaks your personal data like a sieve if you use it.
I find digital assistants to be handy on my smartphone, it works great in the car when you need to keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. But I tend to use them sparingly and I try my best to limit data sharing and turn off the assistant until I need it as I feel they are a real privacy problem.
On the desktop? I don’t find them useful and would rather them be switched off. Left unrestrained they will send everything from the search queries you make and documents you opened to recordings of your voice to the manufacturers cloud.
While Microsoft took away Windows 10 users ability to completely disable Cortana, you can still lock it down so it sends as little information as possible back to the mothership in Redmond.
Step 1: Turn Off Cortana Audio Recording
Go To Settings > Cortana > Talk To Cortana
Flip all three toggles to ‘Off’
Step 2: Remove Cortana’s Permissions
Click on the Permissions & History Tab and follow these steps.
First, make sure you are not signed in.
Next, Click the link “Manage the information Cortana can access from this device” which will open a new window. Turn those toggles to ‘Off’.
Click the back arrow in the upper left corner to return to the previous page.
Next scroll down and turn the cloud search and history toggles to off. For good measure you can click ‘Clear my device history.’
Step 3: Turn Off Phone Sync
This really only applies if you use the Cortana app or your Android or Windows phone. But might as well make sure it is off too.
Click the “Cortana across my devices” tab and make sure it is off as well.
Step 4: Check Your Changes
You’ve now set Cortana to be much less of a privacy hazard. If you want to double check that Cortana is off, click in the search bar next to the Windows start icon in the lower left corner of your desktop and you should see a screen like the one below.
Click on the other two cortana icons and you’ll see cortana has been disabled (as best we can). Notice the privacy items it wants to collect on you. Aren’t you happier it’s turned off?
Control and delete diagnostic data (Telemetry)
This one can be a real bad guy if left to default settings. Microsoft collects diagnostic data from Windows 10 in order to help keep the system and their applications running and diagnose and fix any problems that may be occurring.
That makes sense and as a consumer and someone who’s been in software development for many years, it is really helpful to have this information when you need to fix a problem or detect and diagnose a problem as early as possible, hopefully before the customer is inconvenience.
However, the default is set to full which can have large privacy implications. At this level, Windows dumps the memory and sends it back to their HQ, potentially with parts of the files you were working on while using the app.
That could mean a lot of things could potentially get back to and be seen by a microsoft employee. Were you using the photo app when it crashed? Maybe they can see some of your photos. Email app crashes. Maybe they have the contents of the email you were working on. Your browser crashed. They might see what websites you were viewing. The list goes on, but you get the idea.
At Full, Microsoft also collects the memory state of your device when a system or app crash occurs (which may unintentionally include parts of a file you were using when a problem occurred)
We’re going to send as little information as we can by turing this setting to ‘Basic’.
Go To Settings > Privacy > Diagnostics & Feedback
Then scroll down and turn off the next toggle. > View Tailored Experiences
If you have selected Basic as your Diagnostic data setting, personalization is based on information about your device, its settings and capabilities, and whether it is performing properly.
There is a third toggle to view your diagnostic data that is being sent to Microsoft. It is a half hearted attempt at transparency in my opinion. The last time I checked the data was presented in code and you’d have to have some background in software to understand what is going on and even then some things don’t mean anything to people outside of Microsoft.
I’d leave it turned off unless you are really curios.
Also go ahead and click delete diagnostic data. There is a link to the Microsoft Privacy Dashboard where you can see if there is additional data on their servers about you – and delete it.
Stop Syncing (Account Settings)
If you are using Windows 10 while logged into your Microsoft account (I wish you weren’t), then all your windows settings are being saved to the Microsoft cloud unless you disable them. Do you really want to put your passwords in Microsoft’s hands? I don’t. Let’s turn this off too.
Go to Settings > Accounts > Sync you settings
Use A Local Account On Windows 10
I think this is one of the best ways to get back some of your privacy when using Windows 10. Sign out of your Microsoft Account – or even better – never sign-in when you first get your computer.
Why do I think this is so important? All the personal data that is leaking back to Microsoft is being collected and no doubt being used to create a profile on you. But until you sign into Windows 10 with your Microsoft account, it is very difficult to link it to a real live person.
Once that happens, all that data they’ve been collecting gets linked to you. They are most likely buying further information about you from a privacy vulture like Axciom who’ve made an industry out of trading in people’s personal information.
You may run into some convenience issues when going this route, like trying to buy apps from the Microsoft store or syncing settings to Microsoft..
The email, calendar, OneDrive, Installed Office apps should allow you to sign in to each app individually, so it shouldn’t cause a conflict.
You can give it a try, and if things don’t work the way you like, you can always sign in again.
I can say that I never logged in with a Microsoft account and I haven’t had any issues. I use Word and Excel and some of the built in apps like Photos and media player all without a problem.
If you want to take the plunge, Go to Settings > Accounts
Click on the link that says: Sign in with a local account instead (I’m already signed out, so the link in the screen shot is prompting me to sign in – but that is where it will appear).
You are going to be guided through a few steps including creating a Username and password for the new local account. **Remember this password as you’ll need it to login to your computer.
Lock down your login screen with a password or PIN)
Unlike just about everything else on the list, this one isn’t related to corporate surveillance but it is still a smart privacy and security option for you computer. If you don’t have a sign-in option any nosy Nancy can come by and have a look on your computer, send emails from your account, or cause a laundry list of other potential issues.
The most secure option is to use a strong alphanumeric password that you can easily remember and the way I would go – along with encrypting your hard drive. (A topic for another article)
But the best option is one that you will actually use. So if a PIN or one of the other Windows 10 sign-in options is easier and something you will actually use, then go that route. You’re most likely not going up against the NSA to crack your password – which is good because you would lose – but you need something to keep out that lowlife who might steal your computer.
But please, don’t get too lazy on me here, at least make your PIN a little more complicated than 1234.
Go To Settings > Accounts > Sign-in options
I’d also select the option to not Show Account Details on Login Screen and avoid any unnecessary privacy leaks.
Speech, Inking, & Typing
The last of the general privacy settings in Windows 10. These three record you speech, handwriting, & typing respectively. I’d go ahead and make sure they are turned off.
Go to Settings > Privacy > Speech
Then click on the Inking & Typing personalization and turn that off as well.
Change your app permissions – Getting granular in the Settings app
If you’ve made it to this point you’ve come along way in the path to limit Microsoft’s corporate surveillance and take back some privacy. You’ve shut down the major privacy issues in Windows 10 and hopefully opted in favor of your own privacy vs. convenience in most cases.
For this next section were are going to get into the application privacy settings and tighten things down even more.
Each of these permissions is going to have 3 possible settings. The global setting will turn it on or off for all users on a computer. For example, you have a family computer and each member has their own account, switching this off disables this option for everyone.
Next setting allows you to allow or disallow apps to have access to the feature or function. And the third setting is to allow only certain apps. Also, if you disable a certain setting and later open an app that needs or wants access, it will typical pop-up a notification so you can adjust your settings. Something to keep in mind as we go through the following steps.
Let’s start by once again going to Settings > Privacy.
We’re going to work our way down the list of App Permissions in the left menu. We’ve already taken care of Location, so let’s start with…
Limit Camera Access
I leave this enabled and allow access to apps as it can be helpful if you want to use Skype or other video calling apps. I lock down the access to just the applications I want. It’s amazing how many other apps want to have access to your camera that really don’t need it. Turn off everything you don’t need.
Limit Microphone Access
I also leave this enabled but lock down the apps that can access it. It is also helpful for video chatting, language learning apps, and similar applications.
I had this enabled as it can be handy to receive notifications from apps. However, there are currently no apps requesting access on my device so I turned access off until it is requested by a specific app.
Control App Access to Your Account Info
You may need this enabled if you use a Microsoft email and the email application. I’d lock this down to just the necessary apps and not let Edge browser have access to it. Otherwise I turn this off.
Control Access to Your Contacts
I have this completely off, but if you use Mail and Calendar or Skype you may want to enable access for those programs. Otherwise, turn it off.
Limit Access to Your Calendars
I’d turn this one off as there can be some pretty sensitive personal information stored in calendars. The Mail and Calendar app has access to your calendar regardless of the setting you choose, so shutting this off shouldn’t have any impact on them.
Limit Access to Your Call History
No need to have this turned on unless you are still rocking a Windows phone or using the Your Phone App. And even then I’d turn it off, but up to you.
Limit Access to Your Email
Way too much personal data is in your email for just any app to have access. I’d shut this off unless requested. Even then I’d give it a second thought. The Mail and Calendar app on Windows 10 gets access regardless.
Limit Access to Your Tasks
Same goes for your Tasks. Leave access to this turned off unless you have a real need.
Limit Access to Your Text Messages
This probably only matters if you use a Windows Phone or use the Your Phone app to integrate your Android phone into Windows. I’d disable this feature.
Limit Access to Your Computer’s “Radios”
I’m not talking about Hot 95.5 FM or whatever your favorite station is called. This setting allows applications to use your bluetooth or other connectivity as they need. Seeing how this can transmit data without your knowledge, I’d turn it off, then go back to listening to the soothing sounds of the 70s on your other radio.
Limit Access to Your Computer’s “Other Devices”
I give this a big fat No. Allowing apps to automatically sync and share info with devices you don’t approve sounds like a bad idea. This may impact connections to the Your Phone app or your XBox, so the decision is up to you as always – but for me, I turn it off.
Control Background Apps
Applications love to run in the background without you noticing. They are checking for updates, validating licensing, sending info back to their mothership, and who knows what else. It can be helpful to have some of them running, but certainly there is no need for all of them.
Last I checked I had over 50 apps asking to run in the background, I trimmed it down to five. I suggest you go through your list and only enable apps you feel need to be running and turn off the others. Another benefit of doing this is it saves some power consumption.
Control App Diagnostics
I’d leave this off unless an app complains about it.
Control Automatic File Downloads
If you want applications to use files you have stored on you cloud storage (OneDrive, Google Drive…) automatically without requiring intervention from you, then you’ll want to have this turned on. This can be handy if you store a lot of files like your music or video collection in the cloud and want your media player to seamlessly fetch and play those files when you crank up your playlist.
If you don’t need it than as we’ve said before, turn it off until it is needed.
Windows 10 Privacy Settings: Documents, Pictures, Videos
These three each have their own tabs within Windows 10 Privacy settings, but we are going to cover them all together as the do the same thing, just on your different libraries.
Documents: You are going to want this on but lock down access. At a minimum you are probably going to want to give the App Installer Access.
The app installer will often need to create directories in the Documents folder for new applications you install. This is where they will store their files.
Photos, Videos, File System
I’d turn these off until an application asks for permission then decide if you need to enable these settings. The built in apps like photos and camera get access regardless of the options you choose here. Before turning it off completely, take a look at the list of programs asking for access and if there is anything in the list you currently use, you’ll want to leave it on and disable the other applications individually.
That covers the main privacy settings you’ll want to change on Windows 10. There are a few more items I’ll cover that you may want to deal with as well. Let’s take a look at those next.
Other Windows 10 Privacy Options
Turn Off Delivery Optimization
Microsoft introduced an interesting feature that allows users to get updates quicker by turning every Windows 10 machine into a peer-to-peer network. While Microsoft says:
Delivery Optimization can’t be used to download or send personal content. Delivery Optimization doesn’t access your personal files or folders, and it doesn’t change any files on your PC.
It seems like an unnecessary feature for most people that could possibly be exploited at some point. So I’d turn it off. Go to Settings > Update & Security > Delivery Optimization and switch the toggle off.
Turn Off OneDrive
If you aren’t using OneDrive and don’t have any plans to, you might want to shut this off, otherwise it will continue to start when you boot your system and run in the background.
To do this:
1. Click on the system icon tray and look for the OneDrive cloud icon.
2. Left click on the icon to open the OneDrive Window
3. Click on the “More…” button > then click on settings
4. In the new window that opens, Click the “Settings” tab
5. Uncheck the box next to “Start OneDrive automatically when I sign in to Windows”
Wifi Settings – Random Hardware Addresses, 2.0 Hotspots
This should be turned on by default, but let’s just make sure it is active on your system. This option makes it harder for you to be tracked on public wifi connections.
Go to Settings > Network & Internet > Wi-Fi
Make sure it setting for “Random hardware addresses” is ‘On’
>> While you are there you may want to switch off Hotspot 2.0.
Don’t Use the Express Settings When Installing Windows 10
If you are installing Windows 10 on a new system or setting up your PC for the first time, it is advisable not to use the default settings. If you take a little extra time to walk through the setup process you can change and lock down a lot of these privacy settings as you setup your machine and save you from having to go in after words and change them.
Use Microsoft’s Privacy Dashboard
Microsoft has implemented a Privacy Dashboard, similar to what Google has also done, which allows you to view and manage the data Microsoft is collecting on you. Within the dashboard you can control you browsing history, search history, location data, and much more.
This relates to the data that is stored with your Microsoft account. If you haven’t been there yet, go ahead and give it a good cleaning.
Privacy dashboard https://account.microsoft.com/privacy/
Wrapping Things Up
If you’ve made it all the way through this guide and changed your Windows 10 privacy settings as you’ve followed along, you’ve taken back as much of your privacy as Microsoft will allow. That is a huge first step.
Reclaiming your online privacy is an ongoing task. You’ll need to make your browser settings more private, make sure your email is secure, ensure you are using strong passwords, and many more things. Our future guides will cover these topics and more, helping you stay safe and private online.