Windows 10 privacy improvements, sort of

The good news is that Microsoft is improving the state of privacy in Windows 10, albeit slowly, and grudgingly. The bad news is that the improvements are unlikely to satisfy anyone genuinely concerned about what Windows 10 is really doing.

New: Privacy Dashboard

A few days ago, Terry Myerson, Microsoft’s Executive Vice President of the Windows and Devices Group, announced a new web-based Privacy Dashboard, accessible via your Microsoft account. If you don’t have a Microsoft account, you’re out of luck. I’m still using my Microsoft account to log into my test system, because otherwise I’d have to buy a Windows 10 license. You probably already have a Microsoft account even if you don’t use Windows 10, as they are used for XBox Live, Skype, and other Microsoft services as well.

Poking around in the Privacy Dashboard, the Browsing History section is empty for me, presumably because I don’t use Cortana or Edge. The Search History section is also empty for me, because I don’t use Bing search. But if you use Cortana, Edge and Bing, you’d be able to see all that history here, and be able to remove it as well.

The Location section shows where you’ve been when you logged in on Windows 8.1 and 10 computers. Again, you can clear any or all of this. The section for Cortana’s database shows everything Cortana knows about you, based on your interactions. This is where things get interesting for me, because I only used Cortana for a couple of days when I first installed Windows 10. Cortana knows how often I eat at restaurants, and how far I go to get there. It knows my main mode of transportation. It knows what kind of news interests me. It’s not much, but it’s enough to be kind of creepy.

The Privacy Dashboard is a step in the right direction, and it’s very useful for anyone interested in seeing exactly what information Microsoft has collected. It also allows you to clear much of that information. But what if you want to prevent Microsoft from gathering this information in the first place?

Privacy improvements in Windows 10

Also revealed in Myerson’s post are upcoming changes to the privacy settings in Windows 10. The initial privacy setup has changed, and now provides a bit more information about the various privacy levels and settings. Microsoft is “simplifying Diagnostic data levels and further reducing the data collected at the Basic level.” But in fact there will be fewer privacy levels to choose from, and there’s still no real explanation of exactly what data is sent. And of course the most useful ‘Security’ level (which disables almost all telemetry) is only available to Enterprise users. Us regular folks can only throttle data collection down to the ‘Basic’ level.

According to Microsoft, the Basic level “includes data that is vital to the operation of Windows. We use this data to help keep Windows and apps secure, up-to-date, and running properly when you let Microsoft know the capabilities of your device, what is installed, and whether Windows is operating correctly. This option also includes basic error reporting back to Microsoft.” This sounds reasonable, but it’s lacking in detail and — for many users — still sounds like an intrusion.

Luckily, there are alternatives. I recently discovered a Powershell script called Reclaim Windows 10 that can disable all of the telemetry settings in Windows 10. I’ve yet to test the script, but it looks promising.

Advertisements in Windows 10?

Microsoft still insists this isn’t about advertising: “We want you to be informed about and in control of your data, which is why we’re working hard on these settings and controls. And regardless of your data collection choices, we will not use the contents of your email, chat, files, or pictures to target ads to you.” I’d like to believe that, but it seems unlikely. Microsoft is clearly taking aim at Google’s huge lead in online advertising, and the idea of having a captive audience for advertising (in the form of millions of Windows users) is obviously just too tempting to resist.

Microsoft continues to push Windows 10, now at the expense of Windows 7, which it now says “does not meet the requirements of modern systems, nor the security requirements of IT departments.”

Update 2017Jan18: Techdirt weighs in.

Java 8 Update 111

Well, this is embarrassing. Way back in October, Oracle released another version of Java. Somehow I contrived to miss the announcement, if there was one.

Oracle’s quarterly Critical Patch Update for October 2016 includes information about Java, but doesn’t mention the new version. It only lists affected versions. The release notes for Java 8 Update 111 make it clear that the new version includes fixes for several security issues.

Anyone who still runs a web browser in which Java is enabled should make sure they’re running version 8 Update 111 (or 112, which is basically the same thing but with some new features). Default Java runtime installations are configured to update themselves automatically, but it’s a good idea to check.

I’ve noticed that the pace of Java security fixes seems to have slowed somewhat, which is a relief. There’s also slightly less urgency about Java updates because many popular Java-based software packages (e.g. Minecraft) now include their own embedded version instead of using any available system-wide version.

BEWARE this nasty, effective, GMail-based phishing attack

By now you should be aware that indiscriminately clicking on anything in an email can be dangerous. Even if you know the sender, and the email looks totally mundane, you’re taking a risk any time you do it.

Recently, a particular kind of phishing email is showing up in inboxes everywhere. These emails look completely ordinary at first glance, and they contain what appears to be an attachment.

When you click the ‘attachment’ to open it, your browser is directed to a phony Google login screen. This in itself may not raise any alarms, since Google — in an effort to improve security — often throws extra login screens at us.

Unfortunately, if you fill in your Google username/email and password, that information goes straight to the perpetrators. Almost immediately after that, your password will be changed and you will have lost control of your Google account. If you’re like most people, you use your Google account for numerous Google sites and services, including Google Drive, Analytics, AdWords, and so on. The potential for damage is extreme.

The goods news is that you can avoid being victimized by this attack by doing something you should already be doing: before you click anything in an email, hover your mouse over the link or ‘attachment’. Most useful web browsers and email applications will show you some information about the item, either in a popup or in the status area at the bottom of the app. What you see should provide all the clues you need. If it’s an attachment, it should show you the file name. If it’s a URL, it should show you an ordinary web address that starts with ‘http://’ or ‘https://’.

Hovering over the fake attachment in these phishing emails shows what looks sort of  like a URL, but starts with ‘data:text/html’. No valid URL will ever look like that.

This blogger wasn’t careful. He clicked the ‘attachment’, then entered his Google username and password on the fake login page. Luckily for him, the ‘login’ failed, which alerted him to the situation. He immediately changed his Google password, and appears to have dodged that bullet.

The Wordfence blog has additional details.

Patch Tuesday for January 2017

Another Patch Tuesday rolls around, bringing updates for Internet Explorer, Edge, Windows, and Office from Microsoft, and new versions of Flash and Reader from Adobe.

According to the Microsoft’s January 2017 bulletin summary,

“There are no security fixes or quality improvements for Windows 8.1 … on Update Tuesday for January 2017. As such, there is no Security Only Quality Update or Security Monthly Quality Rollup release for [Windows 8.1] this month.”

And in fact there are only four bulletins (with associated updates), addressing vulnerabilities in Windows, Edge, Office, and the Flash player built into Edge and Internet Explorer 11. Not including Flash, these updates address three security vulnerabilities.

Adobe’s contributions this month start with Flash 24.0.0.194, which addresses thirteen vulnerabilities in previous versions, adds some new features that are not particularly interesting, and improves support for high resolution displays in Firefox on Windows: Flash content will now scale properly in that context. As usual, Flash updates for Edge and Internet Explorer are handled by Microsoft, and Google Chrome will update itself automatically.

New versions of Adobe Reader address twenty-nine vulnerabilities. Reader XI is up to version 11.0.19, while its confusingly-named sister products Acrobat Reader DC (Continuous) and Acrobat Reader DC (Classic) are at versions 15.023.20053 and 15.006.30279, respectively.

So it’s an enjoyably light month. Visit Windows Update, update Adobe Reader, and if you use a web browser with Flash enabled, make sure to update that as well.

Microsoft is losing all of its browser market share to Google

If you used Windows in the 90’s, you probably remember the Browser War between Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape’s Navigator. That war culminated in an antitrust case against Microsoft, in which the plaintiff (the USA) claimed that Microsoft’s bundling of IE with Windows was anti-competitive.

Regardless of whether you believe Microsoft acted fairly, Internet Explorer’s market share increased steadily during the period from 1995 to 2001, getting close to 100% at its high water mark. Microsoft never charged anything for its browser, but controlling the window through which most of the world viewed the web clearly provided a huge advantage to the company.

Now, all that ‘hard won’ market share is being given away by Microsoft, mostly to Google’s Chrome. Internet Explorer’s share plummeted from 40% to 20% in 2016, and there’s no bottom in sight.

Why is this happening?

Microsoft has abandoned Internet Explorer, switching its browser development efforts to Edge, which only runs in Windows 10. Only the most recent versions of IE are still supported, and only on Windows 7, 8.1, and 10. And that support is limited to fixing security issues and other bugs. You won’t see any more new features in IE.

Clearly, Microsoft thought everyone would upgrade to Windows 10, especially given the free upgrade offer, and the company’s aggressive upgrade tactics. But that appears to have backfired; Windows 10’s growth has been less than stellar, and even though Edge is arguably a better browser than IE, Windows 10 users are mostly choosing other browsers.

Microsoft may soon own as little as 5% of the total browser market, thanks to Edge’s lackluster uptake. Edge started 2016 with a market share of about 4%, and ended it with about 5%.

I think this qualifies as a major strategic blunder on the part of Microsoft.

Numbers are courtesy of NetMarketShare.

Article on Ars Technica.

Anonymity isn’t the problem

There are good reasons to be anonymous online. And yet most people assume that anonymity is just a license to be a jerk. The fact is that some people will be jerks online whether they’re anonymous or not.

Sadly, some less-well-informed people have decided that anonymity is somehow the root of all evil on the net, and think that forcing people to use their real names online will magically make everyone nice. This kind of thinking has even pervaded some very high profile companies, including Google and Facebook, both of which have pushed hard to make people use their real names.

Anonymity is a frequent topic of discussion over at Techdirt, where the comments section is open to the public and allows anonymity. Because the Techdirt staff actually engage with commenters (jerks and otherwise), the debate rarely gets out of hand, and some of the most interesting comments are posted by anonymous users.

Microsoft admits it went too far in pushing Windows 10

In a recent Windows Weekly podcast, Microsoft’s Chief Marketing Officer Chris Capossela didn’t quite apologize for the company’s heavy-handed efforts to get people to upgrade to Windows 10.

Capossela did say that Microsoft heard the criticism, and tried to find the ‘right balance’, but he only seems to actually regret one particularly nasty ploy, in which closing an upgrade dialog caused the upgrade to start for many users.

Of course the Windows 10 push is long over, and the bad feelings it generated have started to fade. Unfortunately, even with the bad publicity, I suspect that Microsoft views the operation as a success, which means that they may be tempted to use the same tactics in the future.

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