Telemetry, Windows 10 and Our Privacy

Telemetry is defined as a process in which data is collected from remote locations by hardware and then transmitted back to receiving equipment where it is monitored, either by  automated equipment or by human beings [1].  Collected data can be sent to receivers in a number of different ways, including: radio, ultrasonic, and infrared systems, telephone or computer networks, optical links and phase line carriers.  Telemeters are the physical devices used to actually measure or record data, consisting of a sensor, transmission path, and some sort of display, recording, or control device.  While optical, mechanical or hydraulic telemeters are possible, electronic versions are most widely used, consisting of wired, wireless, analog or digital devices [2].

Not surprisingly, Windows 10 comes equipped with a built-in telemetry service, automatically enabled by default. Microsoft states that the monitoring it performs on your system is meant to improve the user experience, fix bugs, and mitigate against other real or potential problems.  While users can manually set the amount of data they wish to share, the system cannot be turned off completely.  Thus, wary of potential privacy and security issues, users and IT administrators are beginning to question exactly what information is being transmitted and how, if possible, they can override the system and disable the telemetry service completely [3].

Specific Telemetry Data

According to Microsoft, Windows 10 telemetry gathers information on system diagnostics and files, and how often users access features and applications.  However, this may not be all that the company is monitoring. According to InvestmentWatch, Windows 10 is also reporting the following back to Microsoft:

  • Typed text on keyboard sent every 30 minutes;
  • Anything spoken into a microphone;
  • Transcripts of things said while using Cortana;
  • Index of all media files on the computer; and
  • When a webcam is first enabled, 35mb of data are transmitted [4].

While this may sound a bit Orwellian, the reader is provided with a link below to determine the reliability of this reporting source for him or herself.

Disabling Telemetry

Suspicious users can disable the telemetry either manually or by means of third-party downloads, although the latter may come at a cost if the door is left open to malware or related problems.  To manually shut down the telemetry service, Microsoft itself has published a users guide which discusses how to disable these features specifically for Enterprise users, titled, “Configure Telemetry and other Settings in your Organization,” [5] citing concerns from government and business as a motivating factor [6].

Currently, no such official guide exists for Windows 10 Pro or Home versions. However, a list of telemetry control settings for these particular programs, all of which can be changed manually, can be found on Reddit.com [7].  Other Reddit and GitHub.com users have provided their own programs that claim to shut down all telemetry and diagnostic services, although some are extreme: the so-called “Microsoft Telemetry Removal Tool” found on Reddit.com not only turns off telemetry but also disables Windows Update settings, SkyDrive, and other automated (and sometimes useful) features.  According to Wallace Chu, “In short, it declares total war on Windows automated features” [8].

To Disable or Not

One thing seems certain, however: Microsoft’s desire to see as many users as possible converting over to Windows 10 eventually, and that desire is increasingly aggressive with free downloads, glowing testimonials (despite more than a few bugs) and attractive advertising campaigns. Microsoft, in fact, has always planned to have Windows 10 begin automatic installations on most Windows 7 and 8.1 machines.  For now, users still have the option to confirm or deny that installation process to continue to completion.  However, for those who choose to refuse the update, their time may be limited.  According to Jeremy Korst, General Manager of the Windows and Devices Team, “The customer will have the ability to delay it for some period” [9].  When asked for how long, he was unable to clarify.

While Microsoft continues to assure the public that Windows 10 telemetry data is collected only with the best of intentions, such as fixing bugs, mitigating against crashes, and improving the user experience, still, not everyone is a believer.  We are ultimately left with: to disable or not. That is the question.

 

References:

[1] “Telemetry: Summary of concept and rationale,” NASA report. SAO/NASA ADS Physics Abstract Service. Available: http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1987STIN…8913455.

[2] A. Bakshi and U. Bakshi, Electronic Measurements and Instrumentation, Pune, India: Technical Publications, 8.1-8.4, 2008.

[3] W. Chu, “Should You Disable Windows 10 Telemetry,” NewEggBusiness.com, October 14, 2015. Available: http:// blog.neweggbusiness.com/news/should-you-disable-windows-10-telemetry/.

[4] “A Traffic Analysis of Windows 10,” IBW, August 19, 2015. Available:  http://investmentwatchblog.com/a-traffic-analysis-of-windows-10-2/.

[5] Available: https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/mt577208 (v=vs.85).aspx.

[6] N. Heath, “Massive Windows 10 Update Could Turbocharge Windows 7 Machines Says Microsoft,” TechRepublic.com, November 12, 2015. Available: http://www.techrepublic.com/article/massive-windows-10-update-could-turbo-charge-windows-7-machines-says-microsoft/

[7] Available: https://www.reddit.com/r/sysadmin/comments/3nz0xh/ windows_10_settings_for_it_admins/.

[8] W. Chu, [3] supra.

[9] N. Heath, [6], supra.

 

 

 

 

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