There has been some concern that Windows 10 gathers too much private information from users. Whether you think Microsoft’s operating system crosses the privacy line or just want to make sure you protect as much of your personal life as possible, we’re here to help. Here’s how to protect your privacy in just a few minutes.
Note: This story has been updated for the Windows 10 October 2018 Update, a.k.a. version 1809. If you have an earlier release of Windows 10, some things may be different.
Turn off ad tracking
At the top of many people’s privacy concerns is what data is being gathered about them as they browse the web. That information creates a profile of a person’s interests that is used by a variety of companies to target ads. Windows 10 does this with the use of an advertising ID. The ID doesn’t just gather information about you when you browse the web, but also when you use Windows 10 apps.[ Got a spare hour? Take this online course and learn how to install and configure Windows 10 with the options you need. ]
You can turn that advertising ID off if you want. Launch the Windows 10 Settings app (by clicking on the Start button at the lower left corner of your screen and then clicking the Settings icon, which looks like a gear) and go to Privacy > General. There you’ll see a list of choices under the title “Change privacy options”; the first controls the advertising ID. Move the slider from On to Off. You’ll still get ads delivered to you, but they’ll be generic ones rather than targeted ones, and your interests won’t be tracked.
To make absolutely sure you’re not tracked online when you use Windows 10, and to turn off any other ways Microsoft will use information about you to target ads, head to the Ad Settings section of Microsoft’s Privacy Dashboard. Sign into your Microsoft account at the top of the page. Then go to the “See ads that interest you” section at the top of the page and move the slider from On to Off. After that, scroll down to the “See personalized ads in your browser” section and move the slider from On to Off. Note that you need to go to every browser you use and make sure the slider for “See personalized ads in your browser” is set to Off.
Turn off location tracking
Wherever you go, Windows 10 knows you’re there. Some people don’t mind this, because it helps the operating system give you relevant information, such as your local weather, what restaurants are nearby and so on. But if you don’t want Windows 10 to track your location, you can tell it to stop.
Launch the Settings app and go to Privacy > Location. Underneath “Allow access to location on this device,” click Change and, on the screen that appears, move the slider from On to Off. Doing that turns off all location tracking for every user on the PC.
This doesn’t have to be all or nothing affair — you can turn off location tracking on an app-by-app basis. If you want your location to be used only for some apps and not others, make sure location tracking is turned on, then scroll down to the “Choose apps that can use your precise location” section. You’ll see a list of every app that can use your location. Move the slider to On for the apps you want to allow to use your location — for example, Weather or News — and to Off for the apps you don’t.
When you turn off location tracking, Windows 10 will still keep a record of your past location history. To clear your location history, scroll to “Location History” and click Clear. Even if you use location tracking, you might want to clear your history regularly; there’s no automated way to have it cleared.
Turn off Timeline
The Windows 10 April 2018 Update introduced a new feature called Timeline that lets you review and then resume activities and open files you’ve started on your Windows 10 PC, as well as any other Windows PCs and devices you have. So, for example, you’ll be able to switch between a desktop and laptop and from each machine resume activities you’ve started on either PC.
In order to do that, Windows needs to gather information about all your activities on each of your machines. If that worries you, it’s easy to turn Timeline off. To do it, go to Settings > Privacy > Activity History and uncheck the boxes next to “Store my activity history on this device” and “Send my activity history to Microsoft.”
At that point, Windows 10 no longer gathers information about your activities. However, it still keeps information about your old activities and shows them in your Timeline on all your PCs. To get rid of that old information, in the “Clear activity history” section of the screen, click “Manage my Microsoft account activity data.” You’ll be sent to Microsoft’s Privacy Dashboard, where you can clear your data. See the section later in this article on how to use the privacy dashboard to do that.
Note that you’ll have to take these steps on all of your PCs to turn off the tracking of your activities.
Cortana is a very useful digital assistant, but there’s a tradeoff in using it: To do its job well, it needs to know things about you such as your home location, place of work and the times and route you take to commute there. If you’re worried it will invade your privacy by doing that, there are a number of things you can do to limit the information Cortana gathers about you.
Start by opening Cortana settings: place your cursor in the Windows search box and click the Cortana settings icon (it looks like a gear) that appears in the left pane. On the screen that appears, select Permissions & History. Click “Manage the information Cortana can access from this device,” and on the screen that appears, turn off Location so that Cortana won’t track and store your location.
Then turn off “Contacts, email, calendar & communication history.” That will stop the assistant from gathering information about your meetings, travel plans, contacts and more. But it will also turn off Cortana’s ability to do things such as remind you about meetings and upcoming flights. Towards the bottom of the screen, turn off “Browsing history” so that Cortana won’t keep your browsing history.
To stop Cortana from gathering other types of information, head to the Cortana’s Notebook section of Microsoft’s Privacy Dashboard. You’ll see a variety of personal content, ranging from finance to flights, news, sports, and much more. Click the content you want Cortana to stop tracking, then follow the instructions for deleting it.
If you want to delete all the data Cortana has gathered about you, click “Clear Cortana data” on the right side of the screen.