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Cortana: The spy in Windows 10

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols | Aug. 16, 2016
Cortana, Windows 10’s built-in virtual assistant, is both really cool and really creepy

When I first saw Mr. Spock talking to the Enterprise’s computer, I thought it was so cool. I still do. But the more I look at Cortana, Windows 10’s inherent virtual assistant, the more creeped out I get.

Let’s start with Cortana’s fundamental lust for your data. When it’s working as your virtual assistant it’s collecting your every keystroke and spoken syllable. It does this so it can be more helpful to you. If you don’t like that, well, you’ve got more problems than just Cortana. Google Now and Apple Siri do the same things. And it’s not just virtual assistants; every cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) does this to one degree or another — Google Docs, Office 365, whatever.

But Cortana doesn’t stop there. With the recently released Windows 10 Anniversary Update, hereafter Windows 10 SP1, you can’t shut Cortana off.

Maybe you don’t mind Microsoft listening to your every word so it can catch when you say, “Hey, Cortana.” I do. Yes, I want the coolness factor of being able to talk to my computer. But I want the reassurance that it’s not listening when I don’t need it to be. I want a simple on/off switch. Windows 10 SP1 doesn’t have one. This is interesting, though: Windows 10 Education does. Microsoft apparently is willing to respect the privacy of students. The rest of us? Not so much.

What you can do in Windows 10 SP1 is cripple Cortana when you install the operating system. But Cortana then becomes no more than a front end to Microsoft’s Bing search engine. You lose the ability to talk to your computer. You’ll no longer be able to tell Windows 10 to get you an Uber or tell you how the Chicago Cubs did today.

If you’re anti-Cortana, don’t install Windows 10 SP1 with “Express settings.” Instead, follow the steps described by Jared Newman in PC World. You will make Windows 10 less useful but a lot more private. If you’re not comfortable with Cortana collecting your contacts, location, calendar data, and text and email content and communication history, you’ll want to do this. Don’t, though, if you want the full Cortana experience and you don’t mind Microsoft collecting everything except your car keys.

And maybe you don’t. Many of us are reconciled to the mantra of the internet economy: “If you’re not paying for it, you are the product.” Companies such as Facebook and Google give all their free social and search goodies in return for our web history, which they then transform into cash with targeted advertising. And as for Microsoft, it makes a point of saying Cortana doesn’t do that. Why do I not feel reassured?

 

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