The Problem with Windows 8.1 Smart Search

The new Windows 8.1 Smart Search — invoked by default through the Windows 8.1 Search charm — not only searches your computer for the string you specify. It also, all by itself, gathers up the terms and runs them through a Bing search.

Making this cool new feature all the more lovable, Microsoft has officially announced that advertisers will be able to dish up advertising to your computer, based on the searches you perform on your computer.

Try a little experiment.

Go to the Metro Start screen and type an odd word — one that probably doesn’t exist in any of your documents — and press Enter or tap the magnifying glass icon. In this figure, the word flugelhorn is used.

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If you don’t see a screen like this one, congratulations! You have Smart Search turned off. If you refused to accept the default settings when you installed Windows 8.1, you may have turned it off already. But if you run a local, computer-only search, and you get a screen “Powered by Bing” that’s obviously fed your search criteria to the Bing data gathering cloud in the sky, you’ve been Blinged.

In this case, Bing has not only made note of the fact that you searched for flugelhorns, it’s also dished up the opportunity for you to buy flugelhorns, on both eBay and Amazon. How considerate. If you logged on to Windows with a Microsoft account, you just told Microsoft that your e-mail address is desperately seeking flugels. And you’ll no doubt be plagued by flugelhorn ads for the rest of your natural days.

Scary? If you use Microsoft Bing or Google search — or almost any other search engine — you already know that Microsoft and/or Google can and do keep track of your searches. That’s why a casual web search for "flugelhorn" will result in you seeing targeted ads for flugelhorns on almost every site you visit for the following month.

But running a search on your Windows 8.1 PC — not a web search, but a search on your computer — sends Microsoft the same information.

You can turn Smart Search off by bringing up the Settings charm, clicking or tapping Change PC Settings, and then choosing Search and Apps and moving the Use Bing to Search Online slider off.

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