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Privacy Concerns and Windows 8.1

Windows 8.1 users need to understand that this version of Windows, much more than any version of Windows before, pulls in data from all over the web. Every time you elect to connect to a service — Facebook, Flickr, whatever — you’re connecting the dots for Microsoft’s data-collection routines. And if you use a Microsoft account, Microsoft’s dot connector gets to run into overtime.

Microsoft isn't trying to steal your data or somehow use your identity for illegal purposes. It isn’t. At this point, Microsoft mostly wants to identify your buying patterns and your interests, so it can serve you ads that you will click, for products that you will buy. That’s where the money is.

Although Google freely admits that it scans your inbound and outbound Gmail e-mail, all the better to generate ads that you will click, Microsoft (as of mid-2013, anyway) insists that it doesn’t — ergo, the infamous Scroogled ads, where in the pot and kettle somehow tie it on. Don’t be fooled.

Microsoft does scan Hotmail/Outlook.com mail and tiled Mail app messages that you receive with Windows 8.1 — for spam detection, if nothing else. Whether MS will start keeping track of detailed information about your messages in the future is very hard to say.

Here’s how the services stack up, when it comes to privacy (or the lack thereof):

  • Google: Without a doubt, Google has the largest collection of data. You leave tracks on the Google databases every time you use Google to search for a website. That’s true of every search engine (except DuckDuckGo), not just Google, but Google has 70 percent or more of the search engine market.

    You also hand Google web-surfing information if you sign in to your Chrome browser (so it can keep track of your bookmarks for you) or if you sign in to Google itself (for example, to use Google Apps or Google Drive). The native Android browser ties into Google, too.

    Google also owns Doubleclick, the best-known, third-party cookie generator on the web. Any time you go to a site with a Doubleclick ad — most popular sites have them — a little log about your visit finds its way into Google’s database.

  • Facebook: Although Facebook may not have the largest collection of data, it’s the most detailed. People who sign up for Facebook tend to give away a lot of information. When you connect your Microsoft account in Windows 8.1 to Facebook — for example, add your Facebook Friends to your Metro People list — some data that you allow to be shared on Facebook is accessible to Microsoft. That’s why it’s important to lock down your Facebook account.

    Every time you go to a website with a Facebook Like icon, that fact is tucked away in Facebook’s databases. If you’re logged on to Facebook at the time you hit a site with a Like icon, your Facebook ID is transmitted, along with an indication of which site you’re looking at, to the Facebook databases.

    As of this writing, Microsoft can’t get into the Facebook database — which is truly one of the crown jewels of the Facebook empire — although it can pull a list of your Friends, if you allow it.

  • Microsoft: Microsoft’s Internet access database may not be as big as Google’s, or as detailed as Facebook’s, but the ’Softies are trying to get there fast. One of the ways they’re catching up is by encouraging you to use a Microsoft account.

    The other is to create all these connections to other data-collecting agencies inside Windows 8.1, including Facebook and Yahoo! (through Flickr). Then there’s Bing, which logs what you’re looking at just like Google search.

Windows 8.1 is light-years ahead of earlier versions of Windows when it comes to harvesting your data. Or perhaps I should say it’s light-years behind earlier versions of Windows when it comes to protecting your privacy. Same, same.

The single biggest new surprise in Windows 8.1 is the “Smart Search” feature — which is certainly smart for Microsoft’s data collection efforts. If you enable Smart Search, Microsoft (through Bing) keeps a list of all of the terms you search for on your computer.

Because Smart Search is enabled by default when you install Windows 8.1, chances are pretty good that Microsoft’s collecting information about every single search you make for your documents, pictures, e-mail, and so on.

For an ongoing, authoritative discussion of privacy issues, look at the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Defending Your Rights in the Digital World page.

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