Opinion by Preston Gralla

Windows 10: Public enemy No. 1, or an OS like any other?

It’s been denounced in the Russian parliament and reviled as a privacy nightmare — all for doing things that are common to all modern OSs

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Credit: Pixabay

What’s the biggest danger we face today? A gyrating stock market that could push us back into recession? Continuing terrorism threats? The long-range health of our social safety net? The specter of Donald Trump as president?

Not if you restrict your reading to the tech press. There you will see that the one overriding threat today is Windows 10. That’s right; a simple operating system trumps terrorism, recession and, well, Trump. Since Microsoft released the new OS in late July, Windows 10 has been accused of massive privacy violations, denounced by members of the Russian parliament as a tool of espionage, banned by some file-sharing sites due to fears over privacy intrusions, and beset by allegations of violating federal HIPAA health-privacy regulations.

And that’s just in the first month.

The charges against Windows 10 have at their root people’s justifiable fears about their privacy when they use computers and browse the Internet. People’s fears have coalesced around Windows 10 because Microsoft has been a very big and convenient target for decades, particularly for those people who write the company’s name as Micro$oft.

The charges are overblown, of course. Windows 10 doesn’t handle privacy issues much differently from most operating systems. And you can easily customize the operating system to maximize your privacy.

Let’s start with the most outrageous claims. Nikolai Levichev, a deputy speaker in the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, wrote a letter to Russian Prime Minster Dmitry Medvedev asking that Windows 10 be banned from use in government agencies because it gathers too much information about its users. Two weeks before that, another member of parliament, Vadim Solovyov, asked for a government investigation into whether Windows 10 violates Russia’s privacy laws and called Microsoft’s actions in releasing the operating system “espionage.”

Although the Russians were indulging in Trump-like demagoguery, their charges weren’t much different from those made by many people online, such as a writer on Slate who called Windows 10 a “privacy nightmare.” Most of the issues have to do with the default privacy settings in Windows 10, which all fall on the side of revealing more information to Microsoft than many people might want. For example, Windows 10 assigns an advertising ID to users, and then uses that ID to deliver customized ads and information to them. The digital assistant Cortana has to gather information about users in order to do its work, such as reminding people about upcoming flights. All this is not much different from how other operating systems and websites work. Advertising IDs are commonplace. Apple’s and Google’s digital assistants need to gather information just like Cortana does. And although those features in Windows 10 can easily be turned off, Microsoft takes a big public hit.

Windows 10 also includes a feature called Wi-Fi Sense that lets people share bandwidth on Wi-Fi networks with each other. This little-understood feature, turned on by default, has raised fears that it will automatically share people’s passwords with friends and friends of friends, leaving their home networks open to hackers. In fact, even with the feature turned on, people have to take active steps to share bandwidth — nothing happens automatically. Encryption and other features make it a secure way to share bandwidth. It can easily be turned off.

As for the worries about HIPAA, they have to do with Windows 10 capturing your typed and written input so that it can provide suggestions as you type, or improve handwriting recognition. Again, this is commonplace on operating systems and the Web. And in Windows 10, the information is anonymized and scrubbed of identifiers, so it can’t be traced to you. And you can turn the feature off as well.

The upshot of all this? The kind of information Windows 10 gathers is no different from what other operating systems gather. But Microsoft is held to a different standard than other companies. When it releases an operating system, it’s denounced as a capitalist spy by Russia and assailed for privacy invasions by the tinfoil-hat crowd.

In fairness, part of this is Microsoft’s doing. Windows 10 shouldn’t default to the weakest privacy settings on installation — it should find a middle ground. During installation, people should be notified about privacy settings and what they mean. The company’s vague-sounding explanations of Windows 10’s settings do the company more harm than good because they leave room for conspiracy theorists.

So go ahead and install Windows 10. Just make sure that after you install it, you change its privacy defaults. (Go here for details.)

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