Will Windows 10 TP's spooky data collection make the final version?

Microsoft isn't saying

Windows 10
Credit: Microsoft

Windows 10 Technical Preview stealthily collects lots of user data and transmits the information to Microsoft, leading some to wonder whether or not the OS will shed these practices once the testing period ends.

For now, Microsoft is being non-committal. "When we release the new version of Windows, we will have a privacy statement that reflects the final product, and will share more as development continues," a spokeswoman from Microsoft said via email when asked for comment.

In the meantime, anyone interested can examine the Windows 10 Technical Preview privacy statement, which outlines in gory detail all the ways in which this version of the OS monitors, tracks, aggregates and delivers to Microsoft data about its users and their actions, including keystrokes.

Granted, Microsoft has made it abundantly clear that the purpose of the Windows 10 Technical Preview testing program is for it to get as much information as possible about the way the OS is performing outside of the company's walls. The OS comes with an app designed for users to provide feedback to Microsoft. And it also gathers its own information in the background and sends it to Microsoft without asking for users' permission.

"When you acquire, install and use the Program, Microsoft collects information about you, your devices, applications and networks, and your use of those devices, applications and networks. Examples of data we collect include your name, email address, preferences and interests; browsing, search and file history; phone call and SMS data; device configuration and sensor data; and application usage," reads the privacy statement.

Specifically, Microsoft may collect "voice information" when people use "speech-to-text" features, file information about files that users open, and "typed characters," meaning text that users compose. Microsoft explains that these bits of potentially very personal and sensitive information are collected to improve, respectively, speech processing, application performance and auto-complete and spell check features. But the disclosures must surely read to privacy advocates like a Stephen King short story.

"Many features that transmit data to Microsoft are enabled automatically. You may not have the option to turn off the transmission of data for certain features in the Program. To stop the transmission of all data, you must completely uninstall the Program from all of your devices," the statement reads.

The topic is being discussed in the official Microsoft support forum website in various threads, including this one titled "Is my privacy at risk while using Windows 10?"

While testing Windows 10 Technical Preview is, of course, entirely voluntary, it will be interesting to keep an eye on which, if any, of these stealthy data collection practices will be carried over to the commercial version of the OS, under the guise of making it more a more aware and intelligent piece of software that can learn on the fly and personalize itself for each user.

For David Johnson, a Forrester Research analyst, it's clear that technology vendors are seeking explicit consent to gather an increasing amount of information about the way people use the devices and software they produce. "So far it has mostly been for honorable purposes, at least publicly," he said via email.

In the case of Windows 10 Technical Preview, Microsoft is in step with this industry trend. "They're testing the waters for what their customers will accept, and making sure that they are protecting themselves from any future blow-back that would arise if they collected such information without telling anyone," Johnson said.

While he doesn't know what Microsoft's ultimate plans are, he thinks it's likely that the Windows 10 privacy policy will contain language similar to the Technology Preview's.

"Hopefully it will include clearer boundaries for what they will or will not use the data they collect for," Johnson said. "This is personally identifiable data, which is different than they used to collect for things like patching and software quality in the past. Their customers have good reason to know exactly what the boundaries are for its use."

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