Total Recall: the only Copilot+ AI feature that matters is a huge privacy risk

Microsoft Recall
(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Microsoft's just-announced classification of "Copilot+ PCs" leaves a lot of users out in the cold. To access a suite of new AI features in an upcoming build of Windows 11, you'll need a processor with a Neural Processing Unit (NPU) that capable of hitting 40 TOPS (trillion operations per second). To date, there's only one processor family that can hit that number: Qualcomm's upcoming Snapdragon X series of mobile chips. And the first laptops with Snapdragon X aren't even due to ship for a few weeks.

Anyone who currently owns a laptop or desktop — even if it has one of the best CPUs — is out of luck and won't have access to these features. Laptops based on Intel's next-gen Lunar Lake CPUs will ship in Q3 and will meet the 40+ TOPS requirement, but any computer you currently own, or buy today, will not. 

So, how bad should you feel about being left out in the cold? If Microsoft's Copilot+ PC press event this week is any indication, not very bad at all. Of the four exclusive AI features Microsoft showed, three are either available elsewhere or are so niche that few people will use them. Only one, Recall, offers something PC users haven't seen before — and it has some very creepy implications for your privacy.

Before we talk about Recall, why it's useful, and why it might also be a security nightmare, let's spend a moment on why you shouldn't care about the other Copilot+ features. They are:

  • Cocreator: This is a text-to-image generator that will be available as a button in the Paint app. There are plenty of other text-to-image generators already on the market, including local versions of Stable Diffusion. And there are a slew of free, cloud-based image generators, such as Copilot Designer (accessed from built-in Windows Copilot), Google Gemini, and Meta AI.
  • Windows Studio Effects: Available in Quick Settings, this tool adds filters to your webcam outputs. It adjusts the lighting, allows you to play with the color, and makes it look like you are staring straight at the camera, even if you are not. But there are numerous other applications that offer webcam filtering of different kinds. Nvidia Broadcast will do this for anyone with an RTX card. XSplit Vcam is another option. And many conferencing services such as Zoom and Google Meet have built-in filters that use the cloud.
  • Live Captions with Real-Time Translation: Windows 11 already has a Live Captions feature, available in the Accessibility section. So, if you just want to have captions for everything that comes out of your speakers, you already have that. The real-time translation feature is new for Windows, but major online conferencing services such as Microsoft Teams and Google Meet already have it built in. YouTube also has auto captions and translating. How often are you going to need a translation in real-time and not be using one of these services?

Recall, on the other hand, offers a feature that you can't get in Windows right now. When enabled, it takes a screenshot, called a "snap," every few seconds — of your entire desktop. You can then open Recall and query the content of your images or scroll through your timeline to remind you of what you were doing.

So, for example, if you were doing some online shopping a few days ago, you can search Recall for "red shoes" and it will show you all the snapshots of the moments where you were looking at red shoes. If you were on a website, you'll also get a link under the snapshot, that you can click to go back to the page you were on.  If the result was in a Word document or a PowerPoint presentation, Recall will open the appropriate file for you and even take you straight to the slide (in the case of PowerPoint) with the data on it. 

If you ask about a presentation or a spreadsheet you were working on, Recall will take you back to the snapshot you were working on and you can even copy text directly from the snapshots (essentially, image-to-text). Since it has screenshots of all your online conversations, you can also ask it "what did grandma say" and it will show you screenshots of your conversations with her.

Senior Editor Brandon Hill got a chance to see Recall in action at Microsoft's press event. He saw someone search for "papaya salad" and get a snapshot of a web page in the timeline from when the user had visited a recipe website. He saw someone query "can you find my water report" and Recall showed a mix of web pages, a PDF, and an Excel document that all had water reports on them.

He also shot the video below. In it, you can see a Microsoft rep scroll through Recall's timeline and then ask it for "offer" which pulls up images of offers.

Google Photos and other online services have a lot of the same image-recognition capabilities as Recall. I went through my Google Photos album and asked for a variety of things, the online tool did a great job of locating photos I had never tagged. When I asked it for "Halloween," it accurately pulled up pictures of me and my kids in costume. And when I asked it for "Maya," it pulled up pictures of my daughter from her birthday because she was wearing a crown with her name on it and it read the text.

Recall combines the ability to index photos based on content with an archive of constant screenshots of your activity. And it adds in image-to-text and image-to-web-page-URL capabilities. It's just speculation on my part, but perhaps a future version of the tool will integrate with other parts of your OS; I could imagine it adding something to your calendar if you tell a friend in a chat message, "I'll meet you at 7:30."

For Mac and iOS users, there's a third-party app called Rewind that does what Recall does — and it also includes audio recognition. But we've never seen anything like Recall for PCs until now.

The question is this: How comfortable do you feel about having an app that tracks your every activity, keeping an image record of it? And do you really want (or need) a tool to ask about... your own activities?

Microsoft is taking some steps to make sure that the snaps Recall takes stay private. According to the company, the snaps remain encrypted on your local storage drive and are never synced to the cloud or sent to Microsoft. You also have the ability to exclude apps from Recall, delete individual snaps, or disable the feature entirely. It's easy to see why Recall would need a powerful NPU to search through all of those images without getting any help from a server on the Internet.

But let's be clear: Recall poses some serious privacy risks even if it works as advertised. You're creating photographic records of all your activities — including every time you type in a password that isn't hidden by **** symbols. This also applies also to sensitive personal data, such as your social security number or bank account number. If someone found a way to log into your computer — either in-person or remotely — they could easily find this treasure trove of important information. And if you share a family computer with the kids or a spouse and they don't log in under their own accounts (which they should) they can also see your snaps.

Whether you feel comfortable with the privacy risks of Recall, you have to ask: Is Recall a game-changing feature that would make you buy a new PC — or, conversely,  not buy a PC that doesn't support it? My guess is that, for most people, the answer is "no."

If the answer is "yes," you'll need to either buy one of the handful of Snapdragon X-powered laptops coming out in June or wait until the fall, when Intel (and possibly AMD) will have mobile chips with similarly-powerful NPUs. If you want a desktop PC of any kind, get ready to wait — we don't expect desktop chips with NPUs until at least Q4, when Intel Arrow Lake processors come out.  

Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch is Tom's Hardware's editor-in-chief. When he's not playing with the latest gadgets at work or putting on VR helmets at trade shows, you'll find him rooting his phone, taking apart his PC or coding plugins. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram developed many real-world benchmarks, including our laptop battery test.
  • DavidC1
    AI has always been about automating censorship and tracking every activity.

    And it's massive, massive compute required is antithesis to what they claim on the surface, that it's all about the climate.

    The fact that they contradict each other tells you they don't care about it, because it's just a ruse. Real thing has been about control from the beginning.
  • rluker5
    Will this Recall have search results that are available across devices?
    For example I don't want to let guests in the living room be able to get an answer as to what pn I might have been viewing.
    Well maybe a few could, but generally I would prefer that most could not.

    Edit: Also I have my living room itx and kitchen laptop set to start from sleep without a password because it is much more convenient in everyday life. And since some password requirements have gotten excessive I sometimes make my passwords visible to double check my typing. Not liking the sounds of Recall so far.
  • watzupken
    This will hit a brick wall in some countries where privacy law is a big thing. I am glad my older hardware can't run all these crappy AI solution well. They talk about TOPS on your machine, but I don't believe everything runs natively and contained within the PC. LLM is always about data and its not going to change here.
  • DavidMV
    Clearly Microsoft is getting a kickback from hardware manufactures. There is no legit reason not to allow people with powerful discrete GPUs to use these features without an NPU.
  • Notton
    Yeah, when I saw this feature, my immediate thought was how to disable it.

    Although, there are people who I am sure will like it, seeing as some people like to keep 10,000 tabs open.
  • FoxtrotMichael-1
    I wish they would just stop. Nobody is asking for these features, nobody wants these features, and they’re horribly inefficient. As a software developer it makes me cringe so hard to think that they actually wrote this code that takes a screenshot every few seconds. Aren’t we supposed to respond to events asynchronously on a trigger?! Why are we wasting compute resources for this rubbish? Does anyone actually want their computer to be able to “recall” what they did on it? What’s more, is asking your computer to “recall” that one PowerPoint you were working on easier than looking in your Docs folder? Language is one of the least efficient ways of communicating - so why are we forcing computers into it?

    Consider this: is it easier for me to ask “can you get the screwdriver with the green handle out of the third drawer from the top of my toolbox?” or just get it myself? The former requires more cognitive load than the latter. So why are we pretending this makes computers easier to use?!

    At this point, I might just make my Amiga 600 my full time computer. I don’t need whatever it can’t do.
  • Aurn
    I wonder how much this feature ruins your SSD by writing screenshots
  • PEnns
    Which begs the question: If those "Recall" screenshots are to be stored locally (only, one would hope), will MS in its infinite wisdom make larger SSDs / HDDs another hardware requirement, say for Windows 12, 13, etc??

    Who would want such an intrusive and risky feature is beyond me!
  • greymaterial
    Companies nowadays consider heavily pushing unnecessary functionalities to replace critical features and make you pay extra for them, of course also removing the chance to roll back to more resilient old solutions by saying those pose "security risks" that are made by exactly themselves in the first place.
  • rluker5
    Now the default enabled bitlocker makes more sense.

    And it looks like AMD might have their mitigation for leftover locals (vulnerability that leaves AI accessed memory open to reading) available to the masses by sometime in July: was supposed to be March, but got moved later. Also if it comes with a performance hit I imagine users will just go to a previous version of Adrenalin as usual.