Microsoft and Secret Windows 10 Data Collection – The Stories Don’t Stop…

windows 10 privacy microsoft

Since the release of Windows 10 in 2015, Microsoft has faced criticism over covertly collecting user activity data. After the initial user backlash and some penalties in Europe, Microsoft overhauled privacy settings, introduced new tools, wrote some blog posts to actively disclose what data it collects, and even allowed users to opt out of sending logs to Microsoft. However, it appears the company continued to receive much of the data anyway.

A few reports circulating in the past two weeks suggested that the Windows maker continues to receive logs even if users have chosen not to share that data. This discrepancy was noted when users compared data between their privacy settings and the information Privacy Dashboard carried about their usage history.

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Windows 10 sends your "Activity History" to Microsoft, even when you thought you told it not to

It appears that the problem comes from Microsoft using the same term for two settings, first noticed by the folks at HTG. The company may have messed up yet again, but this time it's not about secretly receiving data, but more about the lack of making straightforward design choices and having a clear naming strategy. Here's some background.

Introduced with the April 2018 Update, the Timeline feature allows users to resume working on their projects. This feature depends on "Activity History" of apps you launch on your machines - the data that is shared with Microsoft. When a user clears this history, they would expect that Microsoft won't have any further record of this data. However, some users on Reddit spotted that Microsoft's Privacy Dashboard still showed “Activity History” of apps. But that history was being kept thanks to diagnostics data, not Timeline.

Whether this data appears in your Privacy Dashboard depends on what options you selected under Diagnostics & Feedback. As shared with our readers earlier, you have to choose "Basic" if you don't want your Windows 10 powered device to send all of the data to Microsoft. In a statement, Microsoft confirmed this confusing usage of "Activity History," which remains misleading no matter how you explain it.

"Microsoft is committed to customer privacy, being transparent about the data we collect and use for your benefit, and we give you controls to manage your data," the company spokesperson told us (emphasis is ours).

"In this case, the same term “Activity History” is used in both Windows 10 and the Microsoft Privacy Dashboard. Windows 10 Activity History data is only a subset of the data displayed in the Microsoft Privacy Dashboard. We are working to address this naming issue in a future update."

It turns out while you may have turned off Timeline-related Activity History or even cleared it, the company continued to receive this data because you had chosen "Full" in the Diagnostics settings. The confusion is simply because the same term is also used in Microsoft's Privacy Dashboard, which pulls data based on your diagnostics settings.

Too confusing?

Here's how to make sure you have all the right options unchecked:

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  • Go to Settings > Privacy > Activity History
  • Uncheck “Let Windows synchronize my activities from this PC to the cloud”
  • You can also "clear activity history" if it was already selected

Next, make sure you aren't sending too much diagnostics data to the company (unless you want to) by selecting "Basic":

  • Go to Settings > Privacy > Diagnostics & feedback 
  • Set it to “Basic," which only sends info about your "device, settings and capabilities" in contrast to the "Full" mode, which also sends data about the apps you use and websites you visit

- Here's an earlier piece explaining what Microsoft collects in these two different modes

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