Trusted Tools to Control Windows 10 & 11 Data Collection
Microsoft Windows 10 (and the newer edition, Windows 11) is a data collection machine that phones home a lot.
Some examples of the data Windows collects:
- Searches (which get forwarded to Bing, Microsoft's search engine)
- Voice data (for devices where a mic is present)
- Keystrokes/typing history
- Email and Calendar data
- Extensive telemetry such as device connectivity data and installed drivers
You should also be aware that Windows 11 requires creation and usage of a Microsoft account.
A Microsoft account itself can aggregate even more of your data. For example, it can also pass along personal identifiable information such as your phone number or your usage across other Microsoft services/products such as Office 365 or Xbox Live.
Put very simply, if Windows had legs, it would quite literally be a walking privacy nightmare. Learn more about Windows and its data collection and sharing.
The IDEAL solution
Without beating around the pixelated bush, the absolute quickest and easiest way to be free of Windows' extensive data collection is to switch operating systems. Specifically meaning switching to a Linux/Unix operating system.
As you may, or may not know, most Linux/Unix (but most often we are referring to the various Linux distributions and flavors out there) are far more privacy-respecting out of the box than Windows or macOS for that matter.
I fully understand that this is not the answer that most reading this post probably want to hear or read, but it's important to understand that:
- Other developed options besides Windows (or even macOS ) exist - Linux has gotten phenomenally more refined and, dare-I-say user, friendly over the past few years.
- You'll likely never achieve and maintain the same level of privacy, and in some aspects security, as a system running a Linux distribution - even with all the Windows privacy tweaks/tools enabled
Are you both willing and able to make the switch? We have operating system recommendations here for you.
(Some of our recommendations are specifically geared for those migrating from Windows specifically!)
With that said, I also understand that not using Windows for personal, work, or school-related reasons is in itself not an option for some people out there. Hence the existence of this post.
Controlling Windows data collection
Understand that all of these tools are third party, but they can be reasonably trusted.
However, you should be aware that some things can break - especially if you are "going hard" on neutering Windows' ability to collect data. Please be sure to weigh the pros and cons of what these tools can do in accordance if your personal threat models.
Before moving forward with these tools, avoidthehack highly recommends users to disable what they can from within the Windows settings. This includes disabling Cortana, search suggestions, keystroke logging, and anything related to advertising.
simplewall (Windows 10, 11)
This is a lightweight tool that enables easy and simple configuration of the Windows Filtering Platform (WFP). The WFP in turn configures the various network activity on your system.
Since simplewall allows you to configure and control what goes on within the WFP, you can effectively control the majority of your Windows machine's network activity. This allows you to curb the phoning home of the system itself and of various applications you or another user may use.
For example, simplewall can give you the ability to block Windows 10 updates until you are ready to install them. This can help prevent unwanted additional "features" and the silent resetting/reverting of certain options and settings.
Bonus points: it's open source!
O&O SHUTUP ++ (Windows 10, 11)
This software is not open source. However, it's free, has a reasonable EULA, and doesn't appear to collect any data.
O&O SHUTUP++ is an easy-to-use application that allows you to curtail a ton of data collected by and shared with Microsoft (and any other third parties).
The toggles within the application are divided into comprehensive and easily understandable sections. For example, you can globally adjust what information/data apps have access to - more so than what would be allowed within Windows settings.
Furthermore, you can also configure Windows updates specifics (such as disabling Windows peer-to-peer updating) and cut a good amount of your data being siphoned by Microsoft.
Settings that are "recommended" provide a higher degree of privacy without limiting user experience (in most situations.
Settings that are "somewhat recommended" also improve/protect your privacy but are more likely to cause breakage and/or disable Windows functions that some users require.
The "not recommended" settings are usually reserved for users seeking the utmost privacy, at the risk of severely limiting certain common functionalities and/or security.
Under the "Actions" menu, you can easily enable all recommended and somewhat recommended settings. Alternatively, you require fine tuning you can trigger what settings you require.
This application allows you to easily create a System Restore point before enabling any changes. This feature can come in handy - especially for some of the more nuanced changes that carry a higher risk of breaking something.
Less technically savvy users will probably find O&O SHUTUP++ easier to use than simplewall overall.
It doesn't require an installation - it functions as a standalone and portable application. Therefore, it can be downloaded and ran directly without the hassles/concerns of an installation!
Win10Privacy (Windows 10)
This software is not open source. However, it's free, without a EULA, and doesn't appear to collect any data.
Win10Privacy has a similar set-up and ease of use function as O&O SHUTUP++. Where it's not as published at the O&O piece of software, it does offer more comprehensive privacy options.
Specifically, from within Win10Privacy you can configure some Windows Firewall settings directly and the background connections for numerous apps bundled with Windows 10.
Additionally, you can also enable a number of designated tweaks, control aspects of Windows Explorer, and control Tasks that can't be easily modified from the Task Manager.
Similar to O&O SHUTUP++, each setting is either "recommended," "conditionally recommended," or "restricted recommended." Options with two exclamations preceding require administrator privileges.
Win10Privacy can be formally installed onto a system or loaded as a portable application, similar to O&O SHUTUP++.
As of writing, Win10Privacy is only available for Windows 10 (and 8.1 and 7).
As mentioned earlier, the ultimate, best, and ideal way to stop Windows data collection and excessive sharing is to switch to a privacy-respecting operating system. There's no easy way around that.
If you find yourself a user who is stuck with Windows for any number of personal, work-related, or school-related reasons, then I highly suggest using one of these tools to curb Windows' data collection. Doing so not only improves and maintains your privacy, but it can have other beneficial side effects for your system as well - the less background connections, transmissions, and exchanges your system manages, the better it should perform in terms of speed and battery life (where applicable).
Always remember that your operating system is the command center for your device - therefore it has nearly unfettered access to all inputs and outputs.
While you can also do other things such as make habitual use of a trusted privacy browser or configure your device to use trusted DNS servers, it's important not to overlook the sheer importance of an operating system that respects your privacy as a user.
As always, stay safe out there!