Opinion A funny thing happened while I was reinstalling Windows 8 over Windows 10 yesterday morning. There in front of me, halfway through the installation process, were two full, clear pages of privacy toggles. Every toggle was set to not send private information to Microsoft, or anyone else.
In addition, Windows 8 created a local user account by default – and didn’t demand I maintain a constant, umbilical connection to Microsoft’s servers. Windows 8 was configured for maximum privacy. Now compare this to the indiscriminate data slurp that Microsoft calls Windows 10. It’s basically a clumsy, 3GB keylogger.
It’s often said that with data protection and privacy, we’re like lobsters: we don’t notice the water getting warmer and warmer, until we’re boiled alive. So it’s been with Windows. Windows 8.1 didn’t show you clear choices or screens with privacy toggles anymore, but invited you to agree to either “Express Settings” for privacy (wow: cool, convenient) or “Customise” them (there be monsters). It respected your local user account, but then bullied you into switching to the umbilical when you accessed the Store. Windows 10 makes the Customise option so small it looks like the trademark notice, and even then, the defaults are set to send everything to Microsoft, and only allow you to control the data slurp partially. Local user accounts are so buggy in Windows 10 that you'll probably switch to always-being-slurped anyway.
Given that so little has fundamentally changed between Windows 8 and 10 – other than the new, amateurish and confusing UI – you could be forgiven for thinking that the whole point of the Windows 10 upgrade is to install a keylogger. Maybe that is the whole point. But hey, it’s free. And we don’t look gift horses in the mouth, right?
I think that Microsoft has badly misjudged its markets here. Particularly the enterprise market. One enterprise manager I spoke to this week, after the extent of the slurp became apparent, was simply stunned. Home folders are sent to Microsoft? It reverts default applications to whatever Microsoft chooses? This can’t be real.
(One idiotic blog even recommended installing an adware program to disable Windows 10's data grab. How are IT managers going to feel once users start acting on advice like that?)
Until last week, Microsoft could still claim to hold on to the moral high ground. Admittedly, when you stand next to Google and Facebook, even Fred the Shred comes away looking like an ethical role model. Not many global corporations can get away with suing democratically-elected crime fighters. Not many companies would be so cynical as to treat privacy lawsuits as a way of financially rewarding their sock puppets, as both Facebook and Google have done. Microsoft didn’t dictate abusive terms of trade for creators. Microsoft didn’t lobby to weaken the laws that allow you to own and control your own stuff on the internet, while Google and Facebook have – all in the name of “internet freedom”.
“Americans are freedom-loving people and nothing says ‘freedom’ like getting away with it,” goes the song.
Microsoft has actually spent a lot of money telling us that it didn’t do the creepy things that other people did. And the privacy ad campaigns, mocked at first by Google-friendly bloggers, were a slow burner. Perhaps it’s because of Dave Eggers’ terrific satire on Google and Facebook, The Circle (your summer read), or the relentless weekly intrusions by Facebook and Google, but the Scroogle message had finally begun to resonate. How many “Keep Calm While We Steal Your Data” mugs will Microsoft be able to sell now? Perhaps Google can start selling them instead, replacing the Chrome logo with the Windows logo.
So why did Microsoft vacate the moral high ground in such a clumsy, ugly data slurp?
Here’s what I think happened.