Not long after Windows 10 was released late last month, it received a different kind of publicity than Microsoft wanted -- concerns about everything from its privacy practices to fears about a new feature called Wi-Fi Sense to unhappiness with the way updates are delivered, and more.
In all the sound and fury, one thing was lost -- common sense. Some of these concerns had a basis in fact; others were based on rumors that blossomed into complete myths.
So I've decided to try to get to the bottom of things and have taken an in-depth look at the four most common concerns about Windows 10. Read on to find what it's all about.
Concern: Wi-Fi Sense will share all your Wi-Fi passwords.
The worry is that Windows 10's new Wi-Fi Sense feature, which is designed to share your Wi-Fi connection with friends and colleagues, will automatically share all your Wi-Fi passwords with your Outlook and Skype contacts, whether you tell it to or not. And that it will also share them with your Facebook friends -- and with all of your friends' friends as well.
One of the primary sources of this rumor is an article headlined "UH OH: Windows 10 will share your Wi-Fi key with your friends' friends" that appeared on UK tech news site The Register. From there, it went viral, including to the normally clear-sighted Krebs On Security and beyond.
Truth: Wi-Fi Sense will not share your passwords.
I'll start off with an explanation of exactly what Wi-Fi Sense is and how it works, how it can help you connect to Wi-Fi networks -- and how you can turn it off if you want.
The concept behind Wi-Fi Sense is a solid one: To make it easier for visitors to find and connect to Wi-Fi networks. Wi-Fi Sense lets you share your network with others without seeing the actual network passwords -- the passwords are encrypted and stored on Microsoft's servers so they aren't visible to outside users.
For example, you can share your home network's bandwidth with guests so that they can log onto it automatically, but without having to know the password. And friends and/or colleagues can share access to their networks with you in the same way.
Microsoft didn't invent the idea. The electronic rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation backs a similar idea called the Open Wireless Movement. And in fact, Wi-Fi Sense isn't even new -- it was rolled out to Windows Phone 8.1. But given that relatively few people use Windows Phone, no one paid it much attention.
Also, keep in mind that thousands of people are already doing this without any security issues. If you use a router from Comcast, for example, it automatically creates an extension of your network that any Comcast subscriber can use if they're just passing by. Whenever you see an Xfinity W-Fi hot spot, it's someone who has a Comcast router that is sharing their network bandwidth.
Wi-Fi Sense is turned on by default in Windows 10. But even when it's turned on, it doesn't automatically share your Wi-Fi passwords with anyone's system. You have to take another step to allow access, and you have control over which networks to share -- and with which groups of contacts to share them. And remember, even then, the passwords are encrypted -- and your guest users are blocked from getting to local resources such as computer files or other devices connected to your network.
To allow someone to access a network, you go to Settings / Network & Internet / Wi-Fi / Manage Wi-Fi Settings. At the top of the page are the settings that control whether and how to use Wi-Fi Sense; all are turned on by default.
Scroll down, and you'll see "Manage known networks." Listed beneath are all the networks to which you've connected. It isn't until you click the network, then select Share that the network gets shared -- and even then, not necessarily with all of your contacts.
A section labeled "For networks I select, share them with my" offers three checkboxes: Outlook.com contacts, Skype contacts and Facebook friends. Uncheck the boxes for the kinds of contacts you don't want to share access with. If you want to turn Wi-Fi Sense off completely, uncheck the boxes next to all of them.
Unfortunately, there's no granularity to the way you can share network access to your contacts -- in other words, you can only share with all your friends in, say, Facebook; you can't pick out individuals. It's essentially all or nothing.
I still find this useful, because my Facebook contacts are a different part of my life than my Skype contacts. However, if you've got lots of people in your contacts lists, only a few of whom you'd want to share your network with, this setup won't work for you.
Note: Corporate networks that use the 802.1X Wi-Fi security standard can't be shared using Wi-Fi Sense.
For more information about Wi-Fi Sense, check out Microsoft's FAQ.
Concern: Windows 10 updates are automatically installed on your computer -- and that's a bad thing.
The concern here is that, unlike previous versions of Windows, Windows 10 doesn't give you a choice about when (or which) Windows updates will be installed on your computer. What Microsoft sends to you will be installed, whether you like it or not, and as a result, an update could break something on your PC -- for example, a driver for a peripheral like a printer.
This fear actually started with Microsoft. When you agree to install to Windows 10, part of the EULA licensing agreement reads, "Updates. The software periodically checks for system and app updates, and downloads and installs them for you. You may obtain updates only from Microsoft or authorized sources, and Microsoft may need to update your system to provide you with those updates. By accepting this agreement, you agree to receive these types of automatic updates without any additional notice."
Truth: Automatically accepting Windows 10 updates isn't a bad thing. And there are plenty of workarounds.
It's true that if you have the Windows 10 Home edition, you don't have a choice about installing Windows 10 updates -- Microsoft sends them and your system installs them.
But if you have Windows 10 Pro, you do have a choice -- you can defer updates for up to several months. Start by selecting Settings / Update & security / Windows Update / Advanced options. Underneath "Choose how updates are installed" check the box next to "Defer upgrades." Any updates will be deferred for several months, after which time they'll be installed by Windows 10. The advantage to this approach is that, if there is a problematic update, it will be fixed by the time it is installed on your system. Exceptions are security updates, which will be installed without delay.
And auto-updates don't apply at all to businesses running Windows 10 Enterprise.
And while Windows 10 Home users won't see the "Defer upgrades" box, there is a sneaky workaround they can use to defer updates as well.
If you tell Windows 10 that you're using a metered connection -- one in which you're charged for your bandwidth --- you'll be able to defer updates, even if you have Windows 10 Home. (This only works if you're on a Wi-Fi network -- it won't work if you're connected via an Ethernet cable.) Select Settings / Network & Internet / Advanced options, and turn "Metered connection" from Off to On.
Once you do that, Windows Update will tell you when an update is available, but won't download and install it. You'll be able to do that at your leisure, by clicking the Download button underneath the update. Again, this does not include security updates.
You can also uninstall an update that's already been installed if it's causing you problems. Select Settings / Update & security / Advanced Options / View your update history / Uninstall updates. Then select any update and click Uninstall.
In fact, Microsoft has a free tool that will check if any updates you've installed are causing any problems, and will then uninstall it and hide it from being installed again. (The tool is at the bottom of this page.)
And let's face it -- automatically installing security updates on people's systems is a good thing. Not only will it keep them safer, but it also helps create a kind of herd immunity effect. Protecting someone's PC isn't just good for that person, but it means that PC won't be able to be used by hackers to launch attacks.
As for automatic installs of non-security updates -- yes, they can be really inconvenient, especially if the update causes an issue with your system. But remember -- you can uninstall them.
Concern: Microsoft's use of peer-to-peer networking for Windows updates will slow down your network connection.
With Windows 10, Microsoft uses a trick borrowed from peer-to-peer networking apps like BitTorrent in order to distribute updates more efficiently. Rather than have everyone get updates from a central server, the updates are also delivered from PC to PC. This feature set Reddit visitors ablaze with fears that their network performance would suffer.
Truth: Windows 10 does use peer-to-peer networking to distribute updates. But it can be turned off -- and a tweak could actually decrease your bandwidth use.
As Microsoft points out in its FAQ titled Windows Update Delivery Optimization, when you get a Windows update or download an app from the Windows Store, the entire file -- or parts of it -- might be delivered from another PC rather than from a Microsoft server. And your computer, in turn, might send updates and apps to other systems.
Keep in mind, though, that only your upload bandwidth will be affected by delivering updates to other PCs, not your download bandwidth.
And Microsoft is far from the first company to use this technology. Both BitTorrent and the media-streaming service Popcorn Time (which now exists in the form of a popular fork both use it. Until a year ago, the Spotify music-streaming service used peer-to-peer technology for streaming music to its desktop application. And Netflix is believed to be exploring using peer-to-peer technology for streaming video.
Note that Microsoft did not deliver the Windows 10 upgrade this way -- it relied on traditional servers. Microsoft told Computerworld that "Downloads of the Windows 10 upgrade are happening through Windows Update."
The peer-to-peer feature is turned on by default in Windows 10, but you can turn it off entirely, or tweak it so that you get updates this way but don't deliver them to others.
To turn off the peer-to-per feature entirely, go to Settings / Update & security / Windows Update / Advanced options / Choose how updates are delivered, and move the slider from On to Off. When you do this, you'll only get updates from Microsoft servers, and your PC won't be used to deliver updates to other PCs.
However, you can actually use peer-to-peer reduce your Internet bandwidth. How? By restricting it to just your network -- the Windows 10 update would then be downloaded to only one computer on your network, and the rest of your computers would update from that first PC rather than external servers, reducing your overall Internet use.
To get updates this way (but not deliver them to others), leave the setting at On, and select "PCs on my local network." When you do that, your PC won't be used to send updates to PCs not on your network, but will deliver them to other PCs on your network.
Concern: Windows 10 is a privacy nightmare.
Search for "Windows 10 privacy nightmare" on Google and you'll get more than 8.4 million results, including a screed on Slate in which the author warns, "Windows 10 is currently a privacy morass in need of reform." He's not alone in thinking that. One writer even suggests that Windows 10 violates HIPAA (the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) privacy regulations.
Most of the fears have to do with Windows 10's default privacy settings, created during the installation if you use the express install option. With those default options, Windows 10 will send your calendar and contact details to Microsoft; assign you an advertising ID that can track you on the Internet and, when using Windows apps, track your location; and send your keystrokes and voice input to Microsoft. All in all, it sounds like a privacy-lover's worst nightmare.
Truth: You can protect yourself by changing the defaults.
Windows 10 isn't alone in tracking your location, sending keystrokes back to a server, assigning you advertising IDs and performing similar tasks. These things are fairly commonplace by now -- in, for example, mobile operating systems, Google search and a variety of other services. Siri, for example, tracks your location and preferences in the same way that Windows 10's Cortana does, in order to deliver customized services such as offering info on the local weather and nearby restaurants.
Let's face it -- every time you use a computer, you're living with tradeoffs between your privacy and getting things done more easily.
It's true that the privacy defaults in Windows 10 tilt things away from protecting your privacy. But if you don't like it, there's plenty you can do about it by changing your privacy settings.
Start by selecting Settings / Privacy. Once there, there is a menu on the left that offers a long list of topics within which you can customize your privacy settings to a significant degree for Cortana, your camera, calendar and more.
In fact, it would take a very long article to cover every setting, so I'll offer advice about the most important ones.
Advertising ID: Start off in the General topic. This is where you can tell Microsoft to not use your advertising ID across apps and the Internet. There are also other settings you can change, such as telling Windows 10 not to send your typed input to Microsoft. If you're particularly worried about privacy, you might want to switch off all the settings here (except for the SmartScreen Filter, which protects you from scams and phishing attacks).
Location tracking: In the Location section, you can turn off location tracking completely and delete your location history. (Note: If you turn off location tracking, Cortana won't work.)
However, if you find location tracking useful for some applications -- say, for your weather app -- keep it turned on and scroll down to "Choose apps that can use your location" to select which apps should be allowed to use your location and which shouldn't.
Cortana: If you're wary of all the information Cortana gathers about you, you can turn it off. Click the Windows 10 search box on the bottom left of the screen; you'll see a vertical row of five icons. Click the Notebook icon (it's the third icon from the top) and then select Settings.
From here, you can turn off Cortana completely or select which features to use and which not. For example, one of the things that Cortana does by default is check your email messages for information about your flights and then send you reminders. You can turn that off from here.
Telemetry:There are some privacy settings that you can't turn off completely. Behind the scenes, Windows 10 gathers information about how you use the operating system, such as which apps you use frequently. It also takes memory snapshots and sends them to Microsoft. Microsoft claims all this information, which it calls telemetry, is used to improve Windows 10 and related hardware and services.
To a certain extent, you can customize the kind of telemetry information Windows 10 gathers about you -- but not completely. Go to Settings / Privacy / Feedback & diagnostics. Under the heading "Diagnostic and usage data" there's a setting titled "Send your device data to Microsoft." By default, it's set to Full, which sends the most information possible. You can change that to Basic (sends the least information) and Enhanced (sends the second-most information).
According to a Microsoft FAQ, Basic gathers only data that is "vital to the operation of Windows." The FAQ warns, however, "Some apps and features may not work correctly or at all" with this setting.
The Enhanced setting gathers more information, including "how frequently or how long you use certain features or apps, and which apps you use most often." Full, meanwhile, collects "such [things] as system files or memory snapshots, which may unintentionally include parts of a document you were working on when a problem occurred."
But in the end, you're going to be sending some information to Microsoft -- whereas, as Computerworld reporter Gregg Keizer points out, you could turn it off completely in Windows 7 and Windows 8.1.
The upshot? If you want to use Windows 10, Microsoft will gather information about you -- as do many (or most) other online services. But in my opinion, it falls short of being a "privacy nightmare."
There's been a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt raised over various aspects of Windows 10. Some of it has a basis in truth -- for example, Windows 10 does collect a lot of information about you by default, and it's true that Windows 10 Home users are forced to accept all updates unless they resort to workarounds. And Microsoft could do a much better job at explaining Windows 10's defaults and how to change them during the installation process.
But other concerns have been overblown -- in many cases you can change the defaults to make the operating system work more to your liking. And other concerns -- for example, that Wi-Fi Sense automatically shares your Wi-Fi passwords with your friends and friends of friends -- are myths.