Despite being released five years ago, Windows 10 might still cost Microsoft $4 billion in fines due to continuously violating privacy rules. The operating system’s “privacy nightmare” status has been discussed enough times already, so instead we’ll just help you alleviate the problem.
Perhaps the worst way Windows features can affect your privacy is to nullify your VPN protection by causing leaks. Before we get into the two culprits, try out this easy-to-understand tool here to see whether your VPN is leaking your identity, and see what these leaks mean below.
1. Teredo tunneling
Teredo was created to maintain compatibility between the two available IP address standards: IPv4 and IPv6. The reason for this is that ISPs, websites, companies, and so on are slow to adopt the new standard. Not even VPN providers are in a rush to add IPv6 support to their software.
The problem with that lack of support is that Teredo’s tunneling system could supersede the VPN tunnel and send IPv6 DNS requests to your ISP. In other words, your ISP will be able to see your browsing activity even if you have a VPN installed. This is called a DNS leak, and luckily it can be prevented by disabling Teredo. Here’s how:
- Open a command prompt by pressing Windows + R and typing “cmd” in the Run window
- Type this in the command prompt: netsh interface teredo set state disabled
- Press Enter
Another Windows feature that could cause a DNS leak is the Smart Multi-Homed Name Resolution (SMHNR) introduced in Windows 8.
We’ve mentioned DNS requests, but not what they are and how they’re relevant here. The Domain Name System (DNS) takes domain names (www.google.com, for example), and turns them into an IP address that can be understood by a machine and vice versa.
Normally, DNS requests are handled by your ISP (or an independent DNS provider like OpenDNS). This isn’t ideal, considering telecom companies have been investigated for selling customer browsing and location data. VPN providers aim to fix that by having all requests go through their own DNS servers.
Here’s where SMHNR ruins things. The feature was made to speed up DNS operations by sending out requests to all available DNS servers and picking the one with the fastest response. If your VPN’s servers don’t respond in time, requests could go through to your ISP. Fortunately, you can simply disable SMHNR altogether, which works for both Windows 8 and Windows 10.
Once you’re done disabling both Teredo and SMHNR, it’s worth re-testing your VPN with the leak tool from the beginning. Just to ensure your changes have taken effect.
Cortana is a digital assistant similar to Siri and Google Assistant and knows almost as much about you as your smartphone. Current and visited locations, contacts, email, messaging history, and so on. Thankfully, you can limit the amount of info Cortana gathers about you.
Alternatively, you can turn off Cortana completely, but it will take a bit of work and messing with the Windows registry. If you’re up for it, here is a guide to disable Cortana. Just make sure to create a backup of the registry before attempting any changes.
4. Getting to Know You
Allowing the operating system and Cortana to recognize your writing style is perhaps the eeriest feature on Windows 10, as it identifies typing history and handwriting patterns that are unique to you. Microsoft has mentioned that: “The data is put through rigorous, multi-pass scrubs to ensure it does not collect sensitive or identifiable fields (e.g., no email addresses, passwords, alpha-numerical data, etc.).”
Now, if Microsoft’s words don’t put your mind at ease about what is essentially a keylogger it is using, then you can easily disable it. Simply head over to Settings > Privacy > Inking & Typing Personalization and switch it off.
Since you’re here, you might as well go to Privacy > Speech and turn off Online speech recognition as well. This setting that collects and recognizes your speech patterns used to be included under “Getting to Know You.”
5. Ad and Location Tracking
One way advertisers can serve everybody incredibly specific ads is because of an advertising ID they create for their apps, services, and so on. Basically, this advertising ID is a profile of your interests gathered from your browsing data, actions you make in certain apps, etc. It’s no different for Windows 10, and thankfully Microsoft lets you turn it off.
Go into Settings > Privacy > General – the first setting is what you’re looking for. Do note that this doesn’t stop ads completely; they just won’t be targeted according to your interests and app activity.
Another privacy-invasive feature is location tracking. It’s primarily used to tell you about nearby attractions (e.g. restaurants), give you weather updates, and similar location-based information. But if you don’t want to broadcast your location to Microsoft everywhere you go, disable this setting from Privacy > Location under Allow access to location on this device.
Last but not least, a more recent feature (2018) that lets you sync everything between two Windows 10 devices, from open apps and files to websites you browse, is an issue you might want to handle. While it’s a neat way to jump from your PC to your laptop, for example, it’s still a massive breach of your privacy to upload everything you do to Microsoft’s servers.
All you need to do to disable Timeline is head into Privacy > Activity History and uncheck the two boxes found here. Keep in mind that you have to do this for every Windows 10 device you own.
While you’re at it, click Clear activity history to delete information about your old activities from Microsoft’s Privacy Dashboard. Incidentally, this service lets you see and delete a lot of the info Microsoft has about you, so don’t hesitate to use it to its fullest.