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The Case Against Smart Search in Windows 8.1

Windows 8.1 brings plenty of improvements to the Win8 way of working, but one of the really bad new "features" is Smart Search. When you install Windows 8.1, Smart Search is turned on by default. You should turn it off.

Microsoft's argument in favor of Smart Search sounds quite compelling: "With one search, consumers can look for information across the web, devices, apps, and cloud. . . a modern search experience to allow consumers to find the information they are looking for quickly and accomplish a broad range of tasks — giving people a faster way to find, discover, and do."

The reality is a bit more mundane — and pernicious. Here's an example. If you want to search for "Steve Ballmer" on your computer — perhaps looking for an article you've clipped, or an e-mail you've received — running a search through the Search charm brings up a "hero page" like the one in the following figure.

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You may think that the search you performed looked at all the files on your computer, or all the files on your network, but that's only part of the story. Through the wonders of Smart Search, Windows took your search terms — in this case, "Steve Ballmer" — passed them through Bing, and turned up the page you see.

If you think about that for a second, it means that Microsoft stored a record of what you searched for — indeed, every search term you type — when you search your computer or local network. It's yet another step in Bing's headlong drive to collect more data about you.

That probably won't bother you if you search for "Steve Ballmer" or "invoices" (although the results can get bizarre; try it). But it should bother you if you sometimes search for medical conditions or, oh, "how to rob a bank." Microsoft stores your Microsoft account information along with your search terms, just waiting to be mined for whatever purpose.

To turn off Smart Search, from the Settings charm, choose Change PC Settings→Search and Apps→Search. Move the Get search suggestions and web results from Bing slider to Off.

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