Windows 10 privacy brouhaha: Overblown?

Many are crying foul over the new Windows 10 privacy policy, but are they really just crying wolf? Also in Searchlight: Hackers attack Yahoo through Flash bug; hitchhiking bot is beheaded.

Critics and users agree: Microsoft has a winner in Windows 10. The new and improved operating system (OS) makes it easy for users to take advantage of the Windows ecosystem of services, including boosted security and Cortana, as well as a revamped UI and start menu. What's more, the upgrade is being offered for free to existing Windows license holders.

But, as with many other digital services, "free" actually comes with a price tag.

"Microsoft made Windows 10 a free upgrade because it has the explicit goal of making money from Internet services, ads, apps and games that run on it," said The Wall Street Journal's Geoffrey Fowler -- a model the company is calling customer lifetime value.

In other words, you won't be paying with hard cash, but Microsoft wants to keep making money from your data long after you've purchased your last Windows license or given up your PC.

One example is Cortana, the virtual assistant now baked into Windows 10 alongside Bing, Microsoft's search engine. Not only does it track your online search activity and location, and comb through your emails to learn your preferences; it is also integrated with Bing, which stores all of that information. David Pann, general manager of Microsoft Search Advertising, predicts search volume growth of 10% to 15% by September as a result of this integration.

Data privacy advocates up in arms

Unsurprisingly, Windows 10's privacy policy and data collection systems have sparked controversy -- for example, prompting Zach Epstein of BGR News to claim the OS is actually spying on you, and David Auerbach in Slate to label the new OS a "privacy morass in dire need of reform."

One point of concern for Epstein, Auerbach and others is this somewhat ominous-sounding section in the new Windows 10 privacy policy, which applies to both what you do online and what you do on a PC (read the full policy and service agreement here):

We will access, disclose and preserve personal data, including your content (such as the content of your emails, other private communications or files in private folders), when we have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary.

According to experts I spoke with, however, Microsoft's data collection practices aren't exactly an earth-shattering development.

Steve Kleynhans, research vice president at Gartner's mobile and client computing group, said Windows 10 goes above and beyond any previous PC OS in terms of incorporating the Internet, and -- here's the clincher -- just like any other service based in the cloud, users will experience the "side effect" of data collection as the price to be paid for full access to Windows 10's capabilities and services.

"If you want to use things like cloud-based speed recognition engines, machine learning or have a personal assistant alert you to upcoming appointments, those services need to have access to the data," he wrote in an email.

Both Kleynhans and David K. Johnson, principal analyst at Forrester, believe that those claiming Windows 10 is tantamount to spyware are going too far.

"The term spyware implies that the information collected by the software will be used for nefarious purposes," and Microsoft is taking steps to demonstrate it isn't doing that, Johnson said.

One step is that Microsoft is processing and storing users' sensitive and personally identifiable data on the back end so that it is anonymized and cannot be reassembled -- if, that is, it's even stored at all. "Microsoft knows the importance of trust to their success in delivering new features and should be considered a trusted partner with honorable intentions for the information," Johnson added.

Gartner's Kleynhans concurred, saying that Microsoft is collecting your data mainly to improve search and recognition tools, a process over which users have control.

"Cortana does some collection specifically about you, but you can always see what it knows and edit it. If you don't need or want to use these tools, you can turn them off," he said.

CIOs and Windows 10 privacy concerns

The message is much the same for enterprises rolling out Windows 10 Enterprise as it is for consumers, added Kleynhans: Understand the privacy settings, what data you are sharing and what you are comfortable with users sharing, particularly if you're an organization in a regulated industry.

Wayne Sadin, CIO and chief digital officer at The Go Solution, felt the same. "Just pay attention and choose the settings you're comfortable with. It's not nefarious, just the evolution of privacy versus convenience," he said over Twitter.

Bottom line: The experts I spoke with said CIOs needn't fret over Windows 10's privacy settings, at least not any more than they would over those of iOS or Android devices. In fact, the features these privacy settings enable could actually end up being a boon for employees, Johnson said. Just how much of a boon will depend on how CIOs use Windows 10's capabilities to enable their employees to win over, serve and retain external customers, he added.

"My hope is that CIOs will use Windows 10 as a way to give employees more autonomy and freedom to choose where and how they work, and with which apps they find most helpful, rather than trying to keep the status quo of Windows 7," he told me.

CIO news roundup for week of Aug. 3

Here are more technology headlines from the week:

  • As if you needed further proof that Adobe ought to up its Flash security game: Hackers launched a seven-day malware attack on Yahoo visitors via the site's ad network. Whenever Windows users visited Yahoo, their computer downloaded the malware, which then searched the machine for an outdated version of Adobe Flash to take control of it.
  • Intel is paying a hefty price for diversity -- in a good way. The company is offering up to $4,000 to employees who suggest prospects that help Intel meet its diversity goals -- namely, having a "full representation" of women, minorities and veterans in its U.S. workforce by 2020.
  • Is Facebook a liar, a cheat and a thief? You decide, but popular YouTube vlogger Hank Green thinks so, and he's got some data to back that up. In a blog post on Medium, the video creator accused the social media giant of "freebooting," or giving priority to videos uploaded natively on the platform versus ones that are embedded from YouTube. An example: For a YouTube video, Facebook awards a view after 30 seconds of watching; with its own videos, a view requires a mere three seconds. 
  • It's hard out there for a robot, at least on U.S. soil. Just ask the creators of hitchBOT, the robot that hitchhiked its way across Canada, Germany and the Netherlands as part of a social experiment. HitchBOT barely made it 300 miles in the U.S., relying on the friendliness of humans, before being decapitated in Philadelphia.

Check out our previous Searchlight roundups on Windows 10 Enterprise and Sony's Drones as a Service venture.

Next Steps

Check out sister site ComputerWeekly's coverage on whether businesses should upgrade to Windows 10. Then, get CTO Niel Nickolaisen's take on how IT execs can balance digital data mining and its inherent privacy risks.

Dig Deeper on Enterprise data privacy management