Microsoft doesn't see Windows 10's mandatory data collection as a privacy risk

A Surface Pro 3 running Windows 10
A Surface Pro 3 running Windows 10 Credit: Blair Hanley Frank

VP says telemetry data is key to improving the operating system

In the run-up to the launch of Windows 10 earlier this year, users noticed that Microsoft's operating system would be collecting more data on them by default than it had in the past -- including information about their location and what they're typing -- and sending it off to Microsoft.

Understandably, some folks were concerned about the privacy implications of such a move, especially given disclosures around government surveillance, and the fact that Microsoft previously hadn't built this kind of data collection into its operating system.

Those concerns weren't helped by Microsoft, which was slow to clarify exactly what it takes from users, and to explain how to disable much of that collection. It's possible for users to opt out of things like tracking of contacts and calendar items -- information used by Cortana, Microsoft's personal assistant -- but people who use Windows 10's express settings will toggle them on immediately.

Windows 10 also currently requires that all users hand over some information about how their devices are being used -- what Microsoft calls basic telemetry. That information relates to things like when and how Windows 10 crashes, and Microsoft corporate vice president Joe Belfiore said in an interview that the company needs that information to improve the experience of using its operating system.

For example, "in the case of knowing that our system that we've created is crashing, or is having serious performance problems, we view that as so helpful to the ecosystem, and [therefore] not an issue of personal privacy, that today, we collect that data so that we make that experience better for everyone," he said.

In Belfiore's view, Microsoft's current setup properly addresses users' privacy concerns, since it lets them opt out of the collection of personal information. And as for the tracking features that users can't opt out of, he said the company doesn't consider them to be a privacy issue.

"In the cases where we've not provided options, we feel that those things have to do with the health of the system, and are not personal information or are not related to privacy," he said.

Belfiore emphasized that Microsoft is still working on Windows 10 and is adapting its policies to meet users' needs. The company has already begun backtracking on its hard-line stance toward telemetry data when it comes to enterprise users.

Terry Myerson, head of the company's Windows and Devices group, said in a recent blog post that Microsoft will allow Windows 10 Enterprise users to disable all data collection, including telemetry data, though the company doesn't recommend taking that route.

"We're going to continue to listen to what the broad public says about these decisions, and ultimately our goal is to balance the right thing happening for the most people -- really, for everyone -- with complexity that comes with putting in a whole lot of control," Belfiore said.

He won't be around oversee that for a while. Belfiore, who has worked at Microsoft for more than 25 years, announced this week that he's taking a year-long sabbatical and will be spending more time with his family. In his absence, other members of his leadership team will work closely with Myerson.

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