This month we continue our discussion of Windows 10 frustrations.
Cortana the Spy
Cortana is an intelligent digital assistant built into Windows 10. If your computer has a microphone as most laptops do, Cortana listens to you and allows you to speak questions and commands. Cortana will then pose the question to Bing and return an answer. This is very similar to Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, and Google's "Ok, Google." Even if you do not have a microphone, questions can be entered in via the keyboard, and Cortana will search Bing and your local computer for the answer.
This almost seems like magic: Cortana understands what you are asking and returns an appropriate answer or search response. Cortana can also remind you about appointments and meetings if they are stored in one of the Microsoft calendar products and can use Bing Maps to provide driving directions for where you need to go.
But Cortana listens to everything you say after addressing her and turning her on. She remembers what you have searched for in the past, and she reads your calendar, email, and other files to get a better understanding of what you may need. This sounds innocent enough except it is not easy to tell her not to track what you are doing and she is sharing this information with others, mainly advertisers that want to target ads to people that will be more likely to respond to them.
You may be saying to yourself that you don't care about these privacy issues, but let's look at an all-too-common scenario. Let's say you have a health issue that you are researching for either yourself or a friend. You say something like “Cortana, tell me about diabetes treatment.” Cortana will return a couple of advertisements and then links for drugs.com, medicinenet.com, diabetes.org, and others. Now as you browse the web for other topics, those advertisements and other related ads will follow you. If you login into Microsoft when you start your machine, keywords are linked to your Microsoft profile and follow you all over the web.
When Windows 10 was first released, it was easy to disable Cortana, but with the anniversary release last August, you can't easily disable Cortana on the Windows 10 Home edition. It is possible to disable Cortana, but it requires editing the Windows registry, which is not typically a job for Windows novices. I will not include the instructions here, but they are easy to find if you search the web for “disable Cortana.”
Windows login is another annoying issue with Windows 10. When Windows 10 is installed, it wants you to use a Microsoft or Windows account to login. A Windows account is one from Outlook.com, MSN.com, or one of several other Internet-based services that Microsoft supports. From that point on, Microsoft knows when you are using your computer. There is a way to avoid this, but Microsoft doesn't always make it easy to find. If you are installing Windows and you come to the screen that prompts you for your email and password, look near the bottom of the Panel for "Skip this step." The Windows installer will then prompt you to create a local account for that computer. This account is local for the machine and does not talk to Microsoft to login when you start the computer. If you have already setup a Microsoft account and you want to change to a local account, use the settings gear on the Start menu and select Accounts. Near the bottom of that panel, there is a link that reads "Sign in with a local account instead." Clicking this link will allow you to set up a local account.
Create a Separate Admin Account
While we are discussing account creation, it is best not to have your primary account set up as an administrator account. Not using the administrator account role for your primary account can reduce the chance of being infected with malware. The best option is to create a different account, call it "Boss," and give it the admin role. When you install software, for example, you will be prompted for the Boss password. This simple change makes it harder for web-based, drive-by attacks.
If you decide to make this change create the new account and give it administrator rights first, then go to your primary account and remove the administrator from it.
That's all for this month. In the meantime, practice safe computing.