The paranoid user’s guide to Windows 10 privacy

windows 10 paranoid
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Since its release, a major point of controversy with Windows 10 has been the many ways that it can track your personal activity and gather other data about you. Many people don’t mind sharing personal information in exchange for enabling or enhancing a helpful app or service.

But if you are hard core about wanting to protect your privacy, here are ways that you can avoid, remove or turn off features that track you. Some of these tactics may seem extreme, but you can obviously pick and choose, depending on what level of privacy you’re comfortable with.

Cut the Cortana cord

Cortana, the Windows 10 personal digital assistant, indexes and stores your personal data, search queries and commands that you give it to provide results personalized for you. Since Microsoft released the Anniversary Update for Windows 10 in July, Cortana can no longer be deactivated. However, you can simply choose not to use it.

And to avoid accidentally doing so, remove the search box from the taskbar: right-click on a blank area of the taskbar, point to “Cortana” on the pop-up menu, and select “Hidden” from the sub-menu. If you need to search files on your computer, do so from the File Explorer instead, which has its own search box in the upper-right corner.

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Switch from Edge to an alternative browser

Another tactic would be to not use Microsoft’s built-in browser, Edge. Of course, other browsers like Chrome or Firefox are also tracking your online activity through their respective browsers. But you can try Firefox with “do not track” mode. Ultimately, however, the choice basically comes down to whether you’d rather not have Microsoft tracking both your use of their operating system and your web browsing.

Don’t sign in to OneDrive

Like Cortana, Microsoft’s cloud storage service comes baked-in with Windows 10; there is no direct way to uninstall it, but you don’t need to use it. Just don’t sign in to the service -- which requires a Microsoft online services user account (an example would be an email account with Hotmail or Outlook.com).

If you are already signed in to OneDrive with a Microsoft user account and want to stop using it: Right-click the OneDrive icon on the notification tray, select “Settings” from the menu that pops open, then under the “Account” tab, click the “Unlink this PC” button. Next, click the “Settings” tab, and uncheck “Start OneDrive automatically when I sign in to Windows.”

Also, make sure that your files aren’t saved to a OneDrive folder by default: Launch the Settings app (which you can do by opening the Action Center and clicking the “All settings” button). Under the “Systems” category and “Storage” section, set the five boxes that are listed toward the bottom of the page (i.e. “New apps will save to:”, “New documents will save to:”, etc.) to “This PC (C:)” (or whichever storage medium you prefer).

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Use CCleaner to remove Microsoft apps

Most of Microsoft’s apps that come with Windows 10 share your personal data with one another, such as Calendar, Mail, Maps and People. Microsoft doesn’t let you uninstall many of them. But you can use a third-party application, and the best one we recommend is CCleaner. Even the free version of CCleaner includes an uninstall tool that will let you remove Microsoft’s apps that they’ve made otherwise uninstallable.

Actually, if you want to maintain strict privacy regarding your activity on Windows 10, then you probably shouldn’t use any Windows app -- whether it’s by Microsoft or a third-party developer -- since many of them require that you grant them access to your personal activity and data.

Don’t use a Microsoft online services account to sign in

You can sign in to your Windows 10 system using a Microsoft online services user account, such as a Hotmail or Outlook.com account. Doing so syncs your customizations and preferred settings for Windows 10 to Microsoft’s servers, which in turn can be downloaded to another Windows 10 system you sign in to with the same account.

To avoid all of this, don’t use your Microsoft email account to sign in. If you’ve already done this, create a local account and sign in with it instead: Launch the Settings app. Under the “Accounts” category and “Your info” section, click “Sign in with a local account instead.” You’ll be prompted to enter the password of the Microsoft email account you used to sign in to Windows 10, and then you can set a new username and password that you can then use to sign in just to the Windows 10 computer you’re directly using.

Go to settings, change privacy options

Under the “Privacy” category, turn the switches off that appear under these sections: Location, Camera, Microphone, Notifications, Account Info, Contacts, Calendar, Call History, Email, Messaging, Radios, and Other Devices.

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Use the ‘stop getting to know me’ setting

Under the “Privacy” category and “Speech, inking & typing” section, click “Stop getting to know me.” Otherwise, nearly everything you type as search queries, and your voice and handwriting style (using a digital pen), is captured and analyzed by Microsoft.

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Block diagnostics and feedback

Under the “Privacy” category and “Feedback & diagnostics” section, set the “Feedback frequency” option to “Never” and the “Diagnostic and usage data” option to “Basic.” There’s no option for absolutely denying Microsoft from fielding information about your system hardware and its performance under Windows 10.

Turn off background apps

Under the “Privacy” category and “Background apps” section, turn off the switches for all the apps that are listed here. Besides using some of your Windows 10 system’s memory and other resources, apps that continue to run in the background may be connected online.

Say no to synching

Under the “Accounts” category and “Sync your settings” section, turn off the switch under “Sync settings.” When this function is turned on, the way you’ve customized and set up Windows 10 will be synced to Microsoft’s servers.

Say no to Windows Spotlight

Under the “Personalization” category and “Lock screen” section, under the “Background” option, select either “Picture” or “Slideshow.” The Windows Spotlight feature lets Microsoft’s servers send a random image to your Windows 10 system to display as the background of the lock screen.

Don’t share updates

Under the “Update & Security” category and “Windows Update” section, select “Advanced Options” and then “Choose how updates are delivered.” Turn the switch off that’s below “Updates from more than one place.” When turned on, this function lets your Windows 10 system share its update files with other Windows 10 computers on the internet through peer-to-peer distribution.

Disable device location tracking

Under the “Update & Security” category and “Find My Device” section, click the “Change” button and turn the switch off in the small window that pops open. This tracking feature could be useful if you’re using Windows 10 on a notebook, but if you’re using a desktop computer that you don’t anticipate moving around much, you may want to turn this off if you’d rather not have Microsoft know its location.

Wen is a freelance writer. He can be reached at howardwen@gmail.com.

This story, "The paranoid user’s guide to Windows 10 privacy" was originally published by Network World.

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