In the weeks after its release, Windows 10 users have noticed something strange — it's always phoning home. Last week, an Ars Technica investigation found Windows computers sending data back to Microsoft servers even after services like Cortana and OneDrive had been disabled, in one case even sending back a message as soon as users hit the Start button.
It's a telling change for Microsoft — the last major tech company built on self-contained software — and it’s set off a string of related worries. If any Microsoft users had been scared off by data collection from Google and Apple, they now have nowhere to turn. Reached by Ars Technica, the company was quick to defend itself, saying, "No query or search usage data is sent to Microsoft, in accordance with the customer's chosen privacy settings." Most of the data is anonymized usage logging, not inherently a privacy concern, but the fact remains: using Windows 10 requires constant access to Microsoft's remote servers, and that access goes both ways.
This isn't an option anymore; it's the default
In 2015, this is simply how computing works. Consumers expect smart recommendations and continually improving services. We expect computers — all computers — to be able to answer any question at any time. In return, companies get constant access to your computer for data collection, automatic updates, and offboard processing. This isn't an option anymore; it's the default. And anyone who doesn't like the deal is going to have a very hard time using today's computers.
Mobile tech works this way out of necessity — there simply isn't the processing power to take on more complex tasks — and over the last five years, even more powerful computers have followed that model. It's essentially the premise of all Google's software efforts. Most Chromebooks are constantly feeding data back to Google servers, even though it happens more often through Drive or Search services than the OS itself. If the services are going to improve, engineers need to know what's working and what isn't — and since the services themselves are all free, some level of data-targeted advertising is inevitable. Companies go back and forth on how much to collect and how much to anonymize, but the overall choices have turned out very much the same. Apple ran into its own version of this problem when Yosemite launched last year: the revamped Spotlight Search function fed queries back to Apple Headquarters. But if Spotlight is going to handle web-facing queries like "restaurants near me," what else could it do?
For a long time, Microsoft was the exception to this rule. The company has rolled out lots of cloud services, but they've been discrete offerings, rarely baked into the OS itself, in part because the new approach cut against Microsoft's traditional strengths. That logic changed with Windows 10 because it had to. If Microsoft is going to steal users back from Apple and Google, it needs to match services like Siri and Google Now, which means plugging into the cloud at the deepest possible level.
But while software has changed, the world has been changing around it. Corporate clouds aren't as secure as they once were, and we've seen them compromised by government spies and Redditors alike. Last year, Microsoft chased down an in-house leaker by peeking into a private blogger's Hotmail account, offering profuse apologies after the fact. But for anyone who wants to exercise stronger control over their own email, their own hardware, their own data, it's hard to know where to turn. Leaving your computer in a company's hands is quite literally the only option.
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