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Windows 10: Microsoft rolls out new privacy tools for telemetry data

Beginning with the April 2018 feature update, Microsoft will release a tool that allows Windows 10 users to inspect diagnostic data collected and sent to Microsoft's telemetry servers. Windows Insider Program members can test the app starting today.

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Earlier this week I noted a pair of mysterious (and inactive) links in the Privacy settings of recent preview releases of Windows 10, apparently offering the ability to view and delete telemetry data.

Today, Microsoft officially confirmed that the next public release of Windows 10 will include a Windows Diagnostic Data Viewer utility. The app will allow anyone with an administrator account to inspect the telemetry data being collected from a device and sent to Microsoft through the Connected User Experience and Telemetry component, also known as the Universal Telemetry Client.

(For more details on how this data collection works, see "Windows 10 telemetry secrets: Where, when, and why Microsoft collects your data.")

Microsoft's enterprise customers have had this capability for some time, using a bare-bones tool available to IT professionals. The new viewer is considerably more polished and intended for use by nontechnical Windows 10 users.

Members of the Windows Insider Program will have access to the Windows Diagnostic Data Viewer app in a new build scheduled to be delivered later today. Although the app will be delivered through the Microsoft Store, users won't be required to sign in with a Microsoft account to download and install it.

In a blog post published today, Marisa Rogers, Privacy Officer in Microsoft's Windows and Devices Group, positioned the new tool as a way to be "fully transparent" about what data is collected from a device.

I haven't been able to use the tool yet, but a pair of screenshots Microsoft released confirm that most of this data is intended to give Microsoft details about the type of hardware and apps in use by the 600 million-plus Windows 10 devices.

As this screenshot shows, the viewer might be easy to navigate, but the data itself is typically binary.

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Most of the telemetry data is in binary format; separate documentation includes details about each field and entry.

Image credit: Microsoft

In addition to the search box on that page, the Diagnostic Data Viewer will offer capabilities to filter diagnostic data using a broad set of categories.

A switch at the top of the Filters dialog box will allow you to see which diagnostic data will be dropped if you configure a Windows 10 PC to use the Basic Diagnostic Data setting instead of using the Full option under Settings > Privacy > Diagnostics and feedback.

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The Diagnostic Data Viewer app includes a switch to show data that will not be sent to Microsoft using the Basic setting.

Image credit: Microsoft

In an interview, Rogers described the viewer app as a "secondary mechanism," a companion to the diagnostic data documentation Microsoft released last year with Windows 10 version 1703.

Those pages, which have been updated to include changes in version 1709, describe the basic diagnostic events and fields and the diagnostic data for the Full telemetry level. The viewer is organized using the same core categories.

Most diagnostic data falls into one of five categories:

  • Common data (diagnostic header information) includes the operating system version device class, and a unique device ID.
  • Device Connectivity and Configuration data collects details about the capabilities of a device, attached peripherals, and network information .
  • Product and Service Performance data includes performance and reliability events and information about device health. This category also includes device file queries and movie consumption capabilities, although Microsoft insists that "this functionality is not intended to capture user viewing or listening habits."
  • Product and Service Usage data provides details about usage of the device, the operating system, and applications and services.
  • Software Setup and Inventory data includes details about installed applications and device updates.

Two additional categories are mostly associated with the Full Diagnostic Data setting. Browsing History data is from the Microsoft Edge browser, while Inking, Typing, and Speech Utterance data are typically associated with the Cortana service.

A separate update to the privacy dashboard, at https://account.microsoft.com/privacy/, allows anyone signed in with a Microsoft account to view and clear browsing history, search history, saved location data, voice data, and health activity. It also offers the ability to view and edit preferences saved in the Cortana notebook.

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This updated Privacy Dashboard displays data associated with a Microsoft account, with options to delete some or all of it.

The Diagnostic Data Viewer utility adds a capability that privacy advocates have been requesting since the release of Windows 10. In theory, it should confirm Microsoft's contention that telemetry data is used for product improvement and not for tracking its users' activity.

So far, at least, Microsoft has not acceded to a separate demand from some privacy advocates that it provide an on-off switch for telemetry data collection on retail editions of Windows 10. The company argues that its own controls ensure that personal data isn't mixed with data collected at the Basic level and that the benefits for the Windows ecosystem outweigh what it insists are minimal privacy risks.

For customers running Windows 10 Enterprise edition, a separate setting, available via Group Policy, reduces telemetry collection to a bare minimum but also disables Windows Update. IT pros that choose this option must use an alternate mechanism to manage updates in an organization.