How to use Windows 10 without giving up your privacy

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Microsoft’s latest version of Windows has a lot to recommend it, but privacy advocates aren’t big fans. By default Windows 10 and components like Cortana or the Edge browser do a whole lot of communicating with Microsoft. If that rubs you the wrong way, there are a few steps you can take to make sure your data (or at least as much of it as possible) stays with you.

These steps are intermediate to advanced, so you might be a little outside your comfort zone depending on your familiarity with Windows. Some of them will also disable some of the more convenient aspects of the operating system itself. You can choose to apply some or all of them.

Use Windows without a Microsoft account

Since Windows 8, Microsoft has synced personal preferences and other data through a Microsoft account, which is now the de facto standard for creating a local Windows account. Windows 10 doesn’t make it easy, but it’s quite possible to create an old-fashioned username and password that doesn’t need any online setup. Before we start, you might want to backup your personal files just in case something goes wrong.

account page
Michael Crider/Digital Trends
Michael Crider/Digital Trends

From the Windows desktop, press the Windows button and search for “Manage your account,” then click on the first option. On the Accounts page of the Settings menu, click “sign in with a local account instead,” then enter your current password. Create a username and password, verify your password, and select a password hint. Click “Sign out and finish.”

Now log in with the username and password you just created. Bingo, no more hotmail email addresses for logging in. All of your settings and files should be preserved.

Privacy Menu

Open the main settings menu, then click “Privacy” (the lock icon). There are a ton of options in this menu that you can enable or disable to avoid sharing data (anonymized or otherwise). Here are a list of the relevant settings, and what you should do to each one if you want to disable it.

privacy menu
Michael Crider/Digital Trends
Michael Crider/Digital Trends

General: Set the “let apps use my privacy ID,” “turn on SmartScreen Filter,” “Send Microsoft info about how I write,” and “Let websites provide locally relevant content” toggles to the Off position. Now click “Manage my Microsoft advertising and other personalization info.” This will open a browser tab with two options: “Personalized ads in the browser” and “Personalized ads wherever I use my Microsoft account.” Set both of them to “Off.” Go back to the Privacy menu.

Location: To turn location tracking off for all apps, switch the toggle beneath “Location” to “Off.” You can also scroll down to enable or disable location tracking on an app-by-app basis. Beneath “Location for this device is on/off,” click “Change,” then set it to on or off to enable or disable location tracking for Windows itself.

Camera and Microphone: In both of these settings, switch the “Let apps use my camera/microphone” to “Off” to disable them, or scroll down to enable or disable access on an app-by-app basis. Keep in mind that certain apps, like Skype or multiplayer games, depend on that access for vital functions.

Speech, inking, and typing: Click “Stop getting to know me,” then “Turn Off.”

Account info: Switch the “Let apps access my name, picture, and other account info” toggle to “Off.”

Contacts and Calendar: If you don’t store any contacts or calendar info with your Microsoft or local account, ignore these sections. In you do, then enable or disable apps in both sections. The Calendar section includes a master access toggle, but the Contacts section does not.

Messaging: Switch the “let apps read or send messages (text or MMS)” toggle to “Off,” or enable or disable them app by app.

Radios: Switch “let apps control radios” to “Off.” Keep in mind that this may disable functions in apps that use Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or mobile data connections.

Other devices: Change the “Sync with devices” toggle to “Off,” then set the toggles for the trusted device list to “on” or “off” as you wish. Disabling access to cameras or microphones will cause communication apps to malfunction.

Edge browser

Microsoft’s new Edge browser has a few settings you’ll want to disable in the name of privacy. Open the app, then click the menu button (the three horizontal dots in the upper-right corner). Click “Settings,” then scroll down and click “View advanced settings.”

edge
Michael Crider/Digital Trends
Michael Crider/Digital Trends

Switch the “Use Adobe Flash Player” toggle to “Off” if you want to disable Flash cookies (this will also disable Flash videos, web pages, and games). Switch the “Offer to save passwords,” “Save form entries,” and “Have Cortana assist me in Microsoft Edge” to “Off.” Change the “Cookies” setting to “Block all cookies” (this may disable some web services).

Switch the toggles for “Let sites save protected media licenses on my device,” “Use page prediction,” and “Help protect me from malicious sites and downloads with SmartScreen Filter” to “Off.”

Cortana

Cortana can offer you a lot of customized information — check out this guide to see how much. But the tool does send quite a bit of data back to Microsoft. Here’s how to turn it off.

cortana
Michael Crider/Digital Trends
Michael Crider/Digital Trends

Click the Cortana button or press the Windows button and S at the same time. Click the Settings (gear) icon on the left. Click the first toggle to “Off” to disable Cortana’s personalization and voice functions. There’s also a second option — “Search online and use web results.” You can disable this to keep the non-Cortana search tool from including Bing and other web results in your searches.

W-Fi settings

These options keep your Windows PC from being discovered (or at least easily discovered) by other users on the same network, and from automatically connecting to new Wi-Fi access points.

wifi settings
Michael Crider/Digital Trends
Michael Crider/Digital Trends

Open the Settings menu, then click “Network & Internet,” then “Wi-Fi.” Scroll down past the list of networks, then click “Manage Wi-Fi settings.” Switch the toggles for “Connect to suggested open hotspots” and “Connect to networks shared by my contacts” to “Off.” De-select the check boxes for “Outlook.com contacts,” “Skype contacts,” and “Facebook friends” (if they’re visible for you).

OneDrive

OneDrive is Microsoft’s built-in cloud storage tool. If you have an alternative like Dropbox or Google Drive, or you just don’t want to use it, it’s easy enough to turn off. Click the arrow next to the clock on your taskbar to open the notification area (it always points towards the center of the screen, no matter what position the bar is in). Right-click the cloud icon, then click “Settings.”

onedrive
Michael Crider/Digital Trends
Michael Crider/Digital Trends

In the OneDrive settings menu, click “Unlink OneDrive” to completely disable the service. If you’d like to keep OneDrive functional but disable certain sharing functions, de-select the check boxes for “Start OneDrive automatically when I sign into OneDrive,” “Let me use OneDrive to fetch any of my files on this PC,” and/or “Use Office to work on files with other people at the same time” as desired.

Other privacy measures

Even with all of these options disabled, Windows 10 still sends some diagnostic data to Microsoft servers — there are deep-level processes that don’t send any personal identifying information along with them, but could conceivably be used to pinpoint singular machines on the Internet. The only way to avoid them at the moment is to not use Windows 10.

Also, keep in mind that any third-party apps that don’t conform to Microsoft’s permission management system may still be sending data (personal or otherwise) to remote servers. Remember always to use caution when installing new programs, and never install anything from a source you don’t trust. Keep anti-virus and spyware protections up-to-date; the built-in Windows Defender application is serviceable and free.

Those who need extreme privacy should look into virtual private network (VPN) tools and services.

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