Privacy in a new era of computing

The much-awaited and strangely-named Windows 10 was recently released as a free installation. One of the most immediate negative responses against the operating system revolves around the privacy settings – or lack thereof.

Statements from Microsoft’s privacy policy don’t leave much to the imagination: “We will access, disclose and preserve personal data, including your content (such as the content of your emails, other private communications or files in private folders), when we have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary to protect our customers or enforce the terms governing the use of the services.”

In an age where intrusive, warrantless spying on American citizens by our government is conducted, a lack of privacy in an operating system is something that understandably makes a lot of users anxious. Visions of Big Brother riffling through our emails and Facebook messages, using Cortana searches to convict criminals are the things of some dystopian future, and the idea of one’s emails, voice and other files being sent where any number of people can read them isn’t that appetizing either.

Listening in on a phone conversation is one thing, but having one’s computer record their typing, speech and location for the express purpose of sending that data back to Microsoft is quite another.

Even though privacy settings are adjustable and users can disable the more questionable features of Windows 10, the vast majority of the fear is unfounded. What many users consider to be invasive and unnecessary is designed to improve the user experience.

Cortana is a new feature in Windows 10, a desktop version of the iPhone’s Siri. A sort of speech-activated digital assistant, Cortana relies on recognizing speech and interpreting what the user wants. It’s hard enough to get computers to do what we want them to do with a mouse and keyboard and speech is an entirely different ballgame.

With the myriad of speaking styles, accents and nonverbal filler sounds, speech recognition software needs to be continually improved and attuned to the user. Without access to the input speech, developers are not able to see how mistakes were made and cannot effectively improve the software.

Access to personal data is part of a tradeoff in the rather remarkable landscape of modern day computing. In order for computers to make things more convenient, they need to be able to predict our individual and unique behaviors. Our computers have to get to know us to serve us better and that requires we give up a little of ourselves.

Sadly, all the fear makes for great clickbait. TechRepublic is one example, with the headline “Windows 10 violates your privacy by default, here’s how you can protect yourself.” Slate is another, with “Microsoft’s Windows 10 is a privacy nightmare. Here’s how to protect yourself.”

While it is important for users to be aware of what their operating system is doing and regulate where their data goes, causing unnecessary fear reduces the amount of feedback given to developers and slows progress.

Many blogs and online publications are quick to quote the scariest-sounding passages from Microsoft’s Privacy Statement but never take the explanation straight from the horse’s mouth: “Microsoft collects data to operate effectively and provide you the best experiences with our services. You provide some of this data directly, such as when you create a Microsoft account, submit a search query to Bing, speak a voice command to Cortana, upload a document to OneDrive, or contact us for support. We get some of it by recording how you interact with our services […]”

Many even characterize Microsoft as being blatant and overt, almost arrogant in how bluntly they tell their customers that personal data will be used to improve user experience. Instead, Microsoft should be applauded for being so upfront. Microsoft could have snuck privacy statements in fine print and perhaps made a slightly better product in a little less time, but instead they are open and honest, approaching transparency, something not often seen from Microsoft.