Opinion by Preston Gralla

Don’t believe Microsoft’s latest privacy hype

The company could easily give users the ability to control what information is sent to it, but that’s not what it has in mind.

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Opinion by Preston Gralla

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In late January, Microsoft embarked on a PR blitz to reassure Windows users that the company has their privacy in mind. To prove what it called its continuing devotion to privacy, it announced a new tool for Windows, the Windows Diagnostic Data Viewer, that will be available in the operating system’s next semiannual update.

The tool, Microsoft said in a blog post by Windows Device Group privacy officer Marisa Rogers, is part of Microsoft’s commitment to be “fully transparent on the diagnostic data collected from your Windows devices, how it is used, and to provide you with increased control over that data.” A beta of the tool was made available for anyone who signs up to be a Windows Insider and downloads the preview version of the next Windows update.

Microsoft got plenty of kudos for the new tool. For the company, that was mission accomplished.

But it was anything but that for users. The Diagnostic Data Viewer is a tool that only a programmer could love — or understand. Mere mortals, and even plenty of programmers, will be baffled by it, and they won’t gain the slightest understanding of what data Microsoft gathers about them.

First, a bit of background. Microsoft gathers diagnostic data about the way people use Windows and then uses that information to improve the way Windows works. Nothing nefarious there; it’s a good way for the company to make Windows better for everyone.

The issue for privacy advocates and many individual users is control and transparency. Those advocates want people to know exactly what data is being gathered and sent to Microsoft, and they want users to be able to control that.

Microsoft claims that’s what the Diagnostic Data Viewer tool does. But that’s not quite true, for several reasons. The first, as already noted, is that the tool is exceedingly difficult to understand. You can’t, for example, ask it to show you detailed, easy-to-understand information about the data being sent to Microsoft about your hardware and the way you use it — model and make of devices attached to your PC, your app and Windows feature usage, samples of inking and typing output, the health of your operating system and more.

Instead, you scroll or search through incomprehensible headings such as “Census.Flighting,” and “DxgKrnlTelemetryGPUAdapterInventoryV2,” with no explanation of what those headings mean. And then when you view the data in any heading, you see an even more incomprehensible, lengthy listing, such as this tiny excerpt from “Census.Hardware”:

“cV: “zNWezO9CsEmjb5B,0”,
“cV: :y7iOzuVXL)mj+F9j,0”,

Each listing has lines and lines like that, all in a code to which users have no key.

Will such listings help you know what information Microsoft is gathering about your PC and Windows use? Unless you’re privy to what those codes mean and can decipher the format they’re in, the answer is no.

That’s just the beginning, though. Because even if you could understand the information Microsoft gathers about you for diagnostic purposes, there’s not much you can do to stop the company from gathering it. Like it or not, it grabs the information, and you can’t stop it. OK, there is one small loophole.

Currently, if you want to control what diagnostic information Microsoft gets about your use of Windows 10, you go to Settings > Privacy > Feedback & Diagnostics. At the top of the screen, under the Diagnostic Data setting, you have two choices: Basic or Full. When you choose Basic, only “data necessary to keep Windows up to date and secure,” is sent, in Microsoft’s description. If you choose Full, much more information is sent, including “additional diagnostic data (including browser, app and feature usage, and inking and typing data).” But there’s no way to exclude even the Basic data from being sent.

That one small loophole? If you use the Enterprise Edition of Windows 10, you can stop all data from being sent. But all other Windows 10 users are out of luck.

Microsoft should change this. It should release a simple-to-use tool that shows in granular detail and in plain English exactly what diagnostic information is being sent to Microsoft. People should then be allowed to opt in or out for every type of diagnostic information that is sent. And everyone should be able to do that, not just those who have a specific version of Windows 10.

Microsoft already has a very useful model for doing this. Its web-based Privacy dashboard lets you view and clear your search history, browsing history, location history and information gathered by Cortana. The dashboard is simple, clearly designed and takes only a few minutes to use. There’s no reason the company can’t give you the same kind of control over the information that Windows gathers about you. If Microsoft truly wanted to be seen as a company that cares about your privacy, that’s exactly what it would do. Here’s hoping that when the final version of the Windows Diagnostic Data Viewer is released, it will do just that.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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