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Tech by VICE

The Windows 10 Preview Tracks Everything You Do (And That's the Point)

It's a preview, after all. Instead of getting outraged, read before you beta test.

by Joseph Cox
Oct 6 2014, 3:50pm

Microsoft recently released the Windows Technical Preview, which is essentially a trial version of the upcoming Windows 10 operating system that people can use to check out what's coming, and to give the company feedback to help iron out any problems.

But the accompanying privacy statement reveals a couple of things that not everyone might expect to share, including voice recordings and the text users type.

You typically wouldn't expect an operating system to monitor pretty much everything you were doing on a computer and beam the details back to its creators, which is what some people claim is the case here. Hacker News wrote that by downloading the trial, "you've all but signed away your soul !!," while WinBeta ominously warned that "Microsoft may be collecting a lot more feedback from you behind the scenes."

However, while it's true that the OS preview gathers a lot more data than you might first expect, Microsoft is at least transparent about the whole thing. The real lesson here is the importance of reading the licensing agreement—and making up your own mind whether the exchange of data for services is worth a peek at the next Windows.

The Microsoft statement explains that, "Examples of data we collect include your name, email address, preferences and interests; browsing, search and file history; phone call and SMS data; device configuration and sensor data; and application usage."

It goes on to list that Microsoft may collect "voice information and use it for purposes such as improving speech processing," via a speech-to-text feature that you might use; and that they may pool what you type on your keyboard "for purposes such as improving autocomplete and spellcheck features."

When you don't read the small print, you might be signing up to a whole lot more than you bargained for

So this "behind the scenes" data collection is actually pretty up-front, even if it is rather all-encompassing. In fact, the privacy statement is refreshingly simple: the data Microsoft may collect is bullet-pointed, and although the language is slightly vague, it isn't drenched in technical jargon, which makes it easier to figure out whether you want to install the software—and provide the data required—or not. 

That's not the case with all privacy statements. A previous Apple statement stacked up to a whopping 56 pages; a document that very, very few users would rifle through before clicking accept.

And when you don't read the small print, you might be signing up to a whole lot more than you bargained for. Last week, security company SnoopWall published a report claiming that a number of third-party flashlight apps for Android phones had an extraordinary amount of power over their host device. This included location tracking, access to call details, and the ability to delete and install software—stuff that is obviously unnecessary for illuminating a dark room. Instead, the data may be sold on to advertisers, the Guardian noted.

But while various corners of the internet are freaking out about the Windows 10 agreement, some of the data collected seems intuitively reasonable. Information about your device configuration, for instance, will help Microsoft figure out if there are any particular drivers that are causing problems. This is standard practice for many pieces of software, such as your favourite browser, or when your normal operating system crashes and you're prompted to send a wad of diagnostic data.

And it's important to remember that this isn't the full-blown, commercial version of Windows 10. It's a technical trial, and the whole point of it is to collect info on users. If this was the finished Windows 10, and keylogging and voice recording features were included in a surreptitious manner, it would be a real concern for the privacy of users. Now that Microsoft has laid out just how broad its capabilites are in that regard, expect the Windows 10 release to be met with prying eyes.