How to reclaim your privacy in Windows 10, piece by piece

Windows 10 has deep cloud hooks and shares a lot of data with Microsoft in order to create a smart, seamless experience across devices. If you lean more toward privacy, here's how to disable all of it.

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Microsoft Edge

Even if you use Microsoft’s fancy new browser, you may want to disable some features—like Cortana integration and typing prediction—if you don’t want to send any data back to Microsoft.

Open Edge and click on the menu icon in the far right corner (three horizontal dots). Go to Settings > View Advanced Settings. Here you have the option to turn off Adobe Flash—stop those Flash cookies!—and under ‘Privacy and services’ you can decide to switch off a number of settings.

windows10 privacy edgeadvanced

Microsoft Edge’s Advanced options.

  • ’Offer to save passwords’ and ‘Save form entries’ are both on by default. They are handy features though. Your call!
  • ’Have Cortana assist me in Microsoft Edge’ lets Cortana work inside the browser. If you’ve already switched off Cortana, you definitely don’t want this feature on.
  • ’Show search suggestions as I type’ uses Microsoft’s web-powered prediction service to guess what you’re searching for and fill it in automatically. Chrome and the standard version of Google search offer something similar, so you may already appreciate this convenience elsewhere and not realize it.
  • ’Use page prediction to speed up browsing, improve reading, and make my overall experience better’ is similar to search suggestions in that it sends your browsing history to Microsoft. The company says this feature “uses aggregated browsing history data to predict which pages you’re likely to browse to next, and then loads those pages in the background for a faster browsing experience.” If you don’t like the sound of that, turn it off.
  • ’Help protect me from malicious sites and downloads with SmartScreen filter’ lets Microsoft block malicious sites and downloads from infecting your PC. This feature lets Microsoft download a list of bad-acting URLs to your PC so Edge can block those sites. With SmartScreen active, whenever you land on a malicious URL you will be redirected to a Microsoft webpage that will get some PC information and the URL of the page you visited. If you ask me, the SmartScreen filter is pretty benign and well worth keeping activated. 

For more information, check out Microsoft’s Edge privacy FAQ.

Control Panel SmartScreen

windows10 privacy controlpanel

There are three—count ‘em, three—SmartScreen filters in Windows 10. The second one is in the Control Panel and stops you from installing potentially malicious desktop programs on your PC. It first appeared in Windows 8.

To offer this security feature, however, you have to share with Microsoft anonymized information about the programs you download and install.

Advanced users may just want to disable this feature, as it tends to be a nuisance. I’d strongly advise novice and intermediate users to leave SmartScreen as-is, however.

windows10 privacy windowssmartscreen

To disable it, right-click the Start menu button and select Control Panel from the context menu. Then, with the category view enabled, navigate to System and Security > Security and Maintenance. Select Change Windows SmartScreen settings from the left-side pane.

In the window that opens, select the radio button next to ‘Don’t do anything (turn off Windows SmartScreen).’

Windows 10 and the web

Nope, we’re still not done. Two more sections to go—although the last one is only for the hardcore privacy types. First we want to deal with some odds and ends.

Let’s start by examining the way Windows 10 syncs your personalized settings across devices, including your desktop background, web browser settings, saved passwords, language preferences, ease of access, and so-called “other Windows settings.”

The ability to sit down with any Windows 10 device, log in with your Microsoft account, and have all your settings and preferences immediately show up is powerfully handy indeed. But if you’d rather not store all that information in Microsoft’s servers, the easiest thing to do here is just turn the Sync settings option found under Settings > Accounts > Sync your settings to Off. If you want to take a more fine-grain approach, you can drill down into the synced items under ‘Individual sync settings.’

Finally, let’s move on to the SmartScreen Filter. No, not the Edge one. Nope, not the one for downloading apps either. This is the Windows Store version we saw previously under Settings > Privacy > General.

Like its Edge counterpart, SmartScreen Filter checks the URLs of Windows Store apps and makes sure they’re not up to anything fishy. It’s a security measure that I’d argue is worth turning on. But if you’d rather not use it, go to Settings > Privacy > General and slide the option that says ‘Turn on SmartScreen Filter to check web content (URLs) that Windows Store apps use’ to Off.

Local account

windows10 privacy windows10localaccount

Finally, we’ve come to the last step: using Windows 10 with a local account. This is basically like putting a Windows 7 user account on your PC, with few ties to the cloud.

Navigate to Settings > Accounts > Your account and then select “Sign in with a local account instead.” Then just follow the wizard to start using a local account on your PC—one that isn’t tied to your Microsoft account.

Using a local account will still let you access some built-in features in Windows 10, such as the Mail app, but you may also lose access to others that require a Microsoft account, such as the Windows Store. You also can’t sync your settings to other Windows devices, but if privacy is your focus you probably turned that off in the previous step anyway.

So there you have it: all the privacy steps you need to take to keep Windows 10 firmly planted on the desktop and not the cloud. It’s admittedly a lot of work, but the good news is it only takes a few minutes to stay local once you know what you need to do.

But wait, there may be more?

This guide is only meant to turn off the user-facing cloud-connected facets of Windows 10. When this piece was being readied for publication, Ars Techica’s Peter Bright reported that there appears to be more “phoning home” going on behind the scenes with Windows 10—even with all the previous privacy steps are completed.

For those who want to dig into the nuts and bolts of Windows 10 and its connection to Microsoft servers, we recommend you turn to Ars Technica’s report after you’ve taken the steps outlined here. Without taking these privacy measures first, dealing with what’s left won’t do much good.

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