4 overblown Windows 10 worries

Does Microsoft's new OS really endanger your privacy and security? We examine the four top concerns about Windows 10 -- and what you can do about them

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Concern: Microsoft's use of peer-to-peer networking for Windows updates will slow down your network connection.

With Windows 10, Microsoft uses a trick borrowed from peer-to-peer networking apps like BitTorrent in order to distribute updates more efficiently. Rather than have everyone get updates from a central server, the updates are also delivered from PC to PC. This feature set Reddit visitors ablaze with fears that their network performance would suffer.

Truth: Windows 10 does use peer-to-peer networking to distribute updates. But it can be turned off -- and a tweak could actually decrease your bandwidth use.

As Microsoft points out in its FAQ titled Windows Update Delivery Optimization, when you get a Windows update or download an app from the Windows Store, the entire file -- or parts of it -- might be delivered from another PC rather than from a Microsoft server. And your computer, in turn, might send updates and apps to other systems.

Keep in mind, though, that only your upload bandwidth will be affected by delivering updates to other PCs, not your download bandwidth.

And Microsoft is far from the first company to use this technology. Both BitTorrent and the media-streaming service Popcorn Time (which now exists in the form of a popular fork both use it. Until a year ago, the Spotify music-streaming service used peer-to-peer technology for streaming music to its desktop application. And Netflix is believed to be exploring using peer-to-peer technology for streaming video.

Note that Microsoft did not deliver the Windows 10 upgrade this way -- it relied on traditional servers. Microsoft told Computerworld that "Downloads of the Windows 10 upgrade are happening through Windows Update."

The peer-to-peer feature is turned on by default in Windows 10, but you can turn it off entirely, or tweak it so that you get updates this way but don't deliver them to others.

peer updatesw

You can turn off peer-to-peer updates, or customize the way they work.

To turn off the peer-to-per feature entirely, go to Settings / Update & security / Windows Update / Advanced options / Choose how updates are delivered, and move the slider from On to Off. When you do this, you'll only get updates from Microsoft servers, and your PC won't be used to deliver updates to other PCs.

However, you can actually use peer-to-peer reduce your Internet bandwidth. How? By restricting it to just your network -- the Windows 10 update would then be downloaded to only one computer on your network, and the rest of your computers would update from that first PC rather than external servers, reducing your overall Internet use.

To get updates this way (but not deliver them to others), leave the setting at On, and select "PCs on my local network." When you do that, your PC won't be used to send updates to PCs not on your network, but will deliver them to other PCs on your network.

Concern: Windows 10 is a privacy nightmare.

Search for "Windows 10 privacy nightmare" on Google and you'll get more than 8.4 million results, including a screed on Slate in which the author warns, "Windows 10 is currently a privacy morass in need of reform." He's not alone in thinking that. One writer even suggests that Windows 10 violates HIPAA (the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) privacy regulations.

Most of the fears have to do with Windows 10's default privacy settings, created during the installation if you use the express install option. With those default options, Windows 10 will send your calendar and contact details to Microsoft; assign you an advertising ID that can track you on the Internet and, when using Windows apps, track your location; and send your keystrokes and voice input to Microsoft. All in all, it sounds like a privacy-lover's worst nightmare.

Truth: You can protect yourself by changing the defaults.

Windows 10 isn't alone in tracking your location, sending keystrokes back to a server, assigning you advertising IDs and performing similar tasks. These things are fairly commonplace by now -- in, for example, mobile operating systems, Google search and a variety of other services. Siri, for example, tracks your location and preferences in the same way that Windows 10's Cortana does, in order to deliver customized services such as offering info on the local weather and nearby restaurants.

Let's face it -- every time you use a computer, you're living with tradeoffs between your privacy and getting things done more easily.

It's true that the privacy defaults in Windows 10 tilt things away from protecting your privacy. But if you don't like it, there's plenty you can do about it by changing your privacy settings.

privacy settings

The privacy settings offers a long list of topics that lets you customize the way Windows 10 handles privacy for Cortana, your camera, and more.

Start by selecting Settings / Privacy. Once there, there is a menu on the left that offers a long list of topics within which you can customize your privacy settings to a significant degree for Cortana, your camera, calendar and more.

In fact, it would take a very long article to cover every setting, so I'll offer advice about the most important ones.

Advertising ID: Start off in the General topic. This is where you can tell Microsoft to not use your advertising ID across apps and the Internet. There are also other settings you can change, such as telling Windows 10 not to send your typed input to Microsoft. If you're particularly worried about privacy, you might want to switch off all the settings here (except for the SmartScreen Filter, which protects you from scams and phishing attacks).

Location tracking: In the Location section, you can turn off location tracking completely and delete your location history. (Note: If you turn off location tracking, Cortana won't work.)

However, if you find location tracking useful for some applications -- say, for your weather app -- keep it turned on and scroll down to "Choose apps that can use your location" to select which apps should be allowed to use your location and which shouldn't.

Cortana: If you're wary of all the information Cortana gathers about you, you can turn it off. Click the Windows 10 search box on the bottom left of the screen; you'll see a vertical row of five icons. Click the Notebook icon (it's the third icon from the top) and then select Settings.

From here, you can turn off Cortana completely or select which features to use and which not. For example, one of the things that Cortana does by default is check your email messages for information about your flights and then send you reminders. You can turn that off from here.

Telemetry:There are some privacy settings that you can't turn off completely. Behind the scenes, Windows 10 gathers information about how you use the operating system, such as which apps you use frequently. It also takes memory snapshots and sends them to Microsoft. Microsoft claims all this information, which it calls telemetry, is used to improve Windows 10 and related hardware and services.

To a certain extent, you can customize the kind of telemetry information Windows 10 gathers about you -- but not completely. Go to Settings / Privacy / Feedback & diagnostics. Under the heading "Diagnostic and usage data" there's a setting titled "Send your device data to Microsoft." By default, it's set to Full, which sends the most information possible. You can change that to Basic (sends the least information) and Enhanced (sends the second-most information).


You can customize the kind of telemetry information that Microsoft gathers.

According to a Microsoft FAQ, Basic gathers only data that is "vital to the operation of Windows." The FAQ warns, however, "Some apps and features may not work correctly or at all" with this setting.

The Enhanced setting gathers more information, including "how frequently or how long you use certain features or apps, and which apps you use most often." Full, meanwhile, collects "such [things] as system files or memory snapshots, which may unintentionally include parts of a document you were working on when a problem occurred."

But in the end, you're going to be sending some information to Microsoft -- whereas, as Computerworld reporter Gregg Keizer points out, you could turn it off completely in Windows 7 and Windows 8.1.

The upshot? If you want to use Windows 10, Microsoft will gather information about you -- as do many (or most) other online services. But in my opinion, it falls short of being a "privacy nightmare."

Bottom line

There's been a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt raised over various aspects of Windows 10. Some of it has a basis in truth -- for example, Windows 10 does collect a lot of information about you by default, and it's true that Windows 10 Home users are forced to accept all updates unless they resort to workarounds. And Microsoft could do a much better job at explaining Windows 10's defaults and how to change them during the installation process.

But other concerns have been overblown -- in many cases you can change the defaults to make the operating system work more to your liking. And other concerns -- for example, that Wi-Fi Sense automatically shares your Wi-Fi passwords with your friends and friends of friends -- are myths.

This story, "4 overblown Windows 10 worries" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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