Cortana Is Listening

Around the world, people continue to migrate to Windows 10, but there is more to Microsoft's new OS than a speedy browser, dark themes, and a bag full of new applications. Also debuting in Windows 10 are a few features that will make anyone concerned with privacy cringe, and they all surround Cortana.

To some users, Cortana represents an extremely useful application that assists you with various tasks. Not only can Cortana keep track of your appointments, but it has the ability to search the Internet, check the weather, tell you the time, open some applications, and even tell you jokes. These functions are not only helpful, but fun to use, as Microsoft has been working tirelessly to demonstrate.

However, to a certain extent, Cortana spies on your every move. To be fair, Microsoft put this information in Cortana's FAQ, and it is common that programs and services collect information from you that relate to that service, and many of us have come to accept that. For example, Google collects information on what you search and what websites you visit, and it sells this information to advertisers. But at this point in the computerized world, many people have come to terms with this fact and don't mind it.

The problem with Cortana is that it goes beyond this more generally accepted level of data collection. Cortana will not only remember all of your search history, but it will also collect information on the people you know, the places you go, your calendar details, your emails, IM messages, your text messages, your phone calls, and virtually everything else you do. That's not to mention that the system sends "speech data" to Microsoft periodically. Microsoft is ambiguous as to what "speech data" is, so we don't know if it is voice recordings or some other sort of information, such as generalized statistics.

Personally, while I would be okay with Microsoft gathering data from me using this service to some degree, I can't help but feel this is going way too far. Gathering my location isn't such a big deal; that is probably necessary if I want Cortana to give me directions or tell me the temperature or the time. However, I can't think of a single scenario in which I would want Cortana to record my voice, emails, text messages or IMs.

Microsoft will allow you to clear this data online periodically so that Cortana doesn't get overloaded with useless information. For example, you might go to visit New York for a few days and don't expect to go back anytime soon. You don't want Cortana to keep informing you that NYC traffic is backed up or that there is road construction.

It's good that Microsoft gives you this ability, but the company won't let you deactivate any of these data monitoring systems, and that is a problem.

In other words, you can either choose to have Cortana at the cost of Microsoft watching everything you do and listening to every word you say, or you can deactivate Cortana altogether. Given how many functions are tied into Cortana, it is a tough choice to disable several key features of the OS just so you can have some level of privacy.

Microsoft doesn't hide how it intends to use the information collected through Cortana, either. Although Microsoft said that a lot of the data collected is to allow Cortana to function and to improve its service, Microsoft also directly stated that it uses this information to also provide "personalized suggestions." This takes the forum of targeted advertising, not only in the Windows Store, but in various Windows applications and on websites.

Microsoft goes on to state that "Cortana also allows you to connect to third-party services for additional personalized experiences based upon information you shared with the third-party services. For example, choosing to sign into Facebook with Cortana allows Microsoft to access certain Facebook information so that Cortana and Bing can give you more personalized recommendations." In other words, it will take in even more information from your activities, and sell this information to others for the sake of providing advertising.

Although Microsoft will blatantly tell you this if you read Cortana's FAQ, EULA or privacy statement, the problem is somewhat intensified because you need to search for all of this information to find it. The FAQ and privacy statement are rather difficult to find on Microsoft's website, and the EULA is only viewable when setting up Cortana if you click a button to show it. By default, the EULA is hidden, meaning that many users will accept these terms of use without knowing how much information Cortana is gathering.

If you are concerned about your privacy and use Windows 10, make sure you read everything carefully before you hit accept, or you might regret it later.

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Michael Justin Allen Sexton is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers hardware component news, specializing in CPUs and motherboards.
  • soldier44
    Not on my Win 10 PC its not, disabled. God mode running.
  • Christopher1
    They need to have a way to totally turn off Cortana, permanently. I mean not running AT ALL on machines if you don't want to use it's functionality.
    It was a good idea but for people who are paranoid about our privacy, keeping track of all our file searches on our own machines is going a wee bit too far.
  • memadmax
    I gave Win10 2 days then I squashed it...

    It's still water downed Win8....
  • getochkn
    As do smart TV's with voice function and google now and apple siri and all the rest. They all save and track what you say and do.
  • bob s
    I like Windows 10. It works just fine on my computers and I have had no issues with it. For that matter Windows 8.1.1 worked fine too. It's all about the shortcuts. Learn them, use them, love them. They make navigating the OS so much easier. You would be surprised how many people I need to tell to right click the start button to get access to all the power user goodies. And it's customizable too with some poking around. That is one feature that I sorely miss anytime I have to go back to Windows 7. Makes Windows 7, which I loved, feel...clunky by comparison.

    As for the privacy concerns. Hogwash. Google does worse, and I have yet to hear of one story of someone getting stalked, sued, or otherwise thrown in jail for legitimate, legal use of Google Now/Cortana/Siri. In fact I am pretty sure Cortana, unlike Google, doesn't sell any metrics to third parties. personally identifiable or otherwise. I believe there was a podcast on another windows website that answered that question. You can't have your cake and eat it too. If you want to know when your next appointment is, notify you of phone calls/text messages/emails, and have all of that done through voice activation as has been not only promised, but ACTIVELY REQUESTED for the better part of two decades, then you gotta give something. So either set back computer usage two decades, or take off the tin foil hat. Can't do both.
  • computerguy72
    Doesn't Cortana have to collect the data discussed in the article to function? If I say "call bob" it kinda has to know who the hell "Bob" most likely is. If you say create an email for "mom" well it would have to know this for that sort of capability. For me personally i have Cortana totally disabled on my Win 10 but not because I'm worried about it knowing who 'mom' is but just haven't had time to fool with it yet. I read a couple of messages in this thread implying you can't turn off Cortana and that is false - you can and I have. Its totally disabled. I might revisit it again when I have time.
  • bob s
    Yes it does. It gives awesome location and person based reminders. So you can have Cortana remind you to tell mom something next time you talk to her on the phone. Or Remind you to get milk when you step foot in the grocery store. It has a ton of very handy features.
  • IInuyasha74
    As I mentioned, I can see a certain amount of this to be understandable, I just feel that it goes too far overall.

    For those of you wondering about turning Cortana off, there are ways to turn it off. It is off by default until you activate it, so just check settings if you are wondering about that.
  • loki1944
    I don't understand why MS can't allow users to disable some of these things if they want to.
  • AnimeMania
    They need to give Cortana a push to talk function as an option, so that it knows exactly when to listen.