Is Windows 10 really a privacy nightmare?

5 new features in Windows 10
5 new features in Windows 10

Microsoft just can't seem to shake the image that Windows 10 is spying on you. And Microsoft's lack of transparency about Windows 10's privacy isn't doing much to dispel the notion.

In the nearly three weeks following Windows 10's release, there have been numerous reports about how much personal information Microsoft collects, and the hurdles to stopping it.

Now take a deep breath. There's actually a reasonable explanation for all of this -- it enables some of Windows 10's best and most convenient features.

Here are the main privacy gripes about Windows 10:

1) Shares your personal information with Microsoft by default

By default, Windows 10 shares a lot of information about you with Microsoft. According to the company's privacy policy, Windows sends Microsoft everything you say to Cortana, Windows 10's Siri-like virtual assistant. It also collects your name and nickname, your recent calendar events, the names of the people in your appointments, and information about your contacts -- including their names and nicknames.

The good news: If you don't want to share that information, you can disable it.

The bad news: Microsoft has an incredible 13 separate privacy screens that you'll have to navigate through to shut off all information sharing.

2) Borrows bandwidth from your home Internet connection

Windows 10 will use your Internet connection to help other people download apps or update their PCs.

If someone (let's call her Rebecca) is having trouble connecting to Microsoft's servers, Rebecca might instead download that update or app from you, a complete stranger.

It all happens in the background, without either of you ever knowing it.

It's a feature called Windows Update Delivery Optimization, and it's actually a potentially brilliant way to help Windows 10 users update their PCs faster by connecting to millions of different people instead of just Microsoft.

But Microsoft isn't upfront with customers about it. To turn it off, you'll have to navigate to a submenu ("Choose how updates are delivered") of a submenu ("Advanced options") within the settings app.

Microsoft should be more forthright that it's using your PC as an update server, and it should make turning the feature off easier.

3) Can share your wireless password with your friends' PCs

Windows 10 includes a new feature called Wi-Fi Sense, which allows you to automatically log your friends onto your Wi-Fi network without ever giving them your password.

That freaked some people out, because Microsoft (MSFT, Tech30) is storing and delivering your Wi-Fi password, which can be a key to all your private photos.

In truth, there's really not much to worry about. Though Microsoft enables Wi-Fi Sense by default on Windows 10, it doesn't share your networks by default -- you have to choose to do that. When your friends connect via Wi-Fi Sense, they won't then, in turn, be able to share your network with their friends. Wi-Fi Sense encrypts your password, and it won't work on corporate networks with special security protocols. And you can opt out.

Still, Microsoft's all-or-nothing policy is potentially troubling. Choosing to share access to your Wi-Fi network with all your Facebook (FB, Tech30), Skype and Outlook.com contacts means your best friend will get access, but your stalker will too.

4) Will continue to send information to Microsoft after you disable data-sharing settings

If you went to all 13 privacy pages and shut off all data sharing, you'll still share information with Microsoft.

As Ars Technica first reported, even if you disable Cortana and Bing queries in the search box, opening the Start Menu and typing -- anything -- will still send some data to Microsoft.

Microsoft said there's nothing nefarious going on there. It's not reading your search queries, just learning some basic habits about how you (and many others) are using search. It's not clear exactly what Microsoft means by that, but the company hinted that it's looking at broad behaviors. For example, it may be recording the simple fact that you searched for an item on your PC and how you initiated the search (a click vs. a keystroke).

"As part of delivering Windows 10 as a service, updates may be delivered to provide ongoing new features to Bing search, such as new visual layouts, styles and search code," a Microsoft spokeswoman said in a statement. "No query or search usage data is sent to Microsoft, in accordance with the customer's chosen privacy settings."

But, come on, Microsoft. Shouldn't there be a way to just opt out of all data being sent to you?

5) Can scan for counterfeit games

Tech blog Alpha noted late last week that the Windows 10 license agreement everyone agrees to (without reading) includes language that seems to allow the company to scan your computer for pirated games and disable them at will.

"We may automatically check your version of the software and download software updates or configuration changes, including those that prevent you from accessing the Services, playing counterfeit games, or using unauthorized hardware peripheral devices."

This applies to Windows 10 services, such as Xbox Live, not Windows 10 itself. So Microsoft isn't scanning your PC for illegal copies of Halo. But it's written like it could -- and Microsoft should make that clearer in its privacy statement.

Windows 10 is not nearly as bad as what you've read. But Microsoft isn't doing itself any favors with overly broad privacy statements, difficult-to-navigate privacy settings and a general lack of transparency.

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