Microsoft needs to fit Windows 10 with a data collection 'off switch'

Microsoft is collecting telemetry from PCs running Windows 10 and I'm OK with that, but what I'm not OK with is the fact that there's no off switch. In fact, I can't understand why Microsoft wants to get into a privacy brawl with Windows 10 users at such a critical time.

OK, let's see if it's possible to have a rational discussion about the way Windows 10 collects telemetry data without the Microsoft fans claiming that this is all FUD or the haters calling this a privacy catastrophe.

Let's begin with the facts. With Windows 10 Microsoft has introduced a policy where the collection of basic data from machines running the operating system, data that it calls telemetry, is mandatory. Part of the deal of being allowed to run Windows 10 is handing this data over to Microsoft.

No ifs, no buts.

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According to Microsoft's Corporate Vice President Joe Belfiore, the company needs this information to improve the overall experience for everyone using the operating system.

"And 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 so not an issue of personal privacy, that today, we collect that data so that we make that experience better for everyone," he said during an interview.

"And in the cases where we've not provided options," Belfiore went on to say, "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."

So, the bottom line is that Microsoft wants this telemetry, and if you use Windows 10 you don't get a say in whether you hand it over or not. Well, that's not entirely true, because Windows 10 Enterprise users can disable all data -- including telemetry data -- from being sent back to Microsoft. But the average Joe Customer doesn't get a say in the matter.

Is the problem that Microsoft wants to collect telemetry in order to make Windows better? No, it isn't. Telemetry is important as it gives Microsoft an insight into how people interact with Windows and how things go wrong, and a mechanism for collecting such data has been built into Windows since Windows XP (yes, even your precious Windows XP could collect and send telemetry back to Microsoft). The difference with Windows 10 is that just as with updates, Microsoft is taking a heavy-handed approach and not giving users any control over the process. It's a "we know best" approach that borders on taking liberties.

Now I understand that by giving users the ability to opt out from sending back telemetry Microsoft will reduce on the amount of data it can collect, which in turn reduced the amount of data available to make Windows better, but is this really worth getting into a damaging public brawl with users over, especially when it's in relation to user data and privacy? Doubly so when it's at such a critical time in the Windows 10 lifecycle. And be in no doubt that when it comes to the transfer of data from user's PC to a third party -- even if the data is anonymised and contains nothing but technical gobbledygook related to system health -- this will be a privacy issue.

Collecting data from systems and not giving the folks who are sitting between the keyboard and chair an option to opt out would always have raised an eyebrow, but in this post-Snowden world it looks especially shady.

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Is this data really worth the price Microsoft has to pay to collect it by force?

I want to make it clear that I'm in no way suggesting that Microsoft is doing anything nefarious with telemetry data. The crackpot theories that it's a data backdoor and Microsoft is handing that data to the NSA/FBI/saucer people are just that -- crackpot theories. But Microsoft does need to appreciate and accept that not a week goes by where there isn't some data horror story in the headlines, and that makes people understandably nervous.

Microsoft needs to be working on getting people excited about Windows 10, not strong-arming them or generating ammunition for the haters (or, for that matter, competitors).

Getting out of this mess is easy. Here are three simple steps for Microsoft:

  1. Wind back the ego a few notches. Just because a system is running Windows 10 shouldn't mean that Microsoft feels it is entitled to end user telemetry. Period. Remember whose computer it is. Never lose sight of that.
  2. Build an off switch for the telemetry. This shouldn't be hard to do. Put the decision as to whether telemetry data is sent back to the Microsoft mothership in the hands of the user.
  3. Quit it with the heavy-handedness. What is it with all the "mandatory" stuff in Windows 10? Sheesh.

So, is there anything that Windows 10 users can do if they want to put the brakes on Microsoft harvesting data from their PC? Well, there are third-party tools that can configure your system so it doesn't send data back to Microsoft. Problem is you're trying to solve a privacy issue by installing random third-party software on your system, which feels sketchy at best.

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This is made all the sketchier by the fact that some of the Windows 10 privacy tools install adware onto the system. I suggest you don't install these onto your system, and as always, be vigilant.

There's a good listing of Windows 10 privacy tools available on Ghacks, but if you were to ask me for a recommendation then my vote would be for Spybot Anti-Beacon from the makers of Spybot Search & Destroy, a popular anti-spyware program for Windows. The tool is simple to use, doesn't foist ads onto your system, and is written by people who have a background in keeping Windows systems clean.

Do you have to do this? No, but if you feel strongly enough about this matter to want to do something about it then it's using third-party tools to modify the operating system or nothing (or not use Windows 10, I suppose).

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