Laudator: Frank Rosengart

The BigBrotherAward 2018 in the “Technology” Category goes to

Microsoft Germany,

represented by the Chairwoman of the Management Board, Sabine Bendiek,

for implanting telemetry (i.e. the transmission of diagnostic data) in Windows 10 that is almost impossible to deactivate. Even skilled users will hardly be able to stop this data from being transmitted.

Microsoft is following a current trend with the introduction of Office 365 and Windows 10: A lot of data is now stored in the Cloud, software is made available as a subscription rather than a one-time purchase, and the Microsoft company is very curious to find out what exactly its users are doing. It starts with the licence activation, which requires an online connection. If I do not want to use the Internet, for which there are good reasons, then Windows 10 makes that practically impossible.

The fact that my Windows 10 system wants to transmit information about the size of available RAM to Microsoft once every day may seem harmless at first sight. Regrettably, software or devices that “phone home” to send usage statistics have almost become a normality. It will not be such a trivial affair to most people to learn that a list of all software that is installed on their computer is being shared. Why should it concern Microsoft whether I use my computer as a typewriter, a toy, a television set or for image editing? And what does the company do with this information? We do not know.

According to Microsoft, Windows 10 is also transmitting some information that seems just banal. How often is the key combination Alt+Tab used to switch between currently running programs? “I don’t care if Microsoft knows about these things”, one part of the users might say. “That is none of their business!”, says another.

Those in the second group will clearly want to stop these data transmissions. Surely there must be a switch for that somewhere?! If you check Settings → Privacy, you will be overwhelmed with switches and option lists. Dozens of things are there to activate and deactivate, and most of us cannot know what consequences one decision or another may have.

At least when the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation comes into force in late May 2018, the default setting for all these switches should be “no transmission”. User action should be required to activate them – privacy and data protection are the founding principles of the GDPR. We all – you all – should keep an eye on whether Microsoft will stick to that.

Windows 10 does actually have settings on data protection. These are “only” five clicks away from the normal working screen, so this is a not place that users may just stumble across by coincidence. End even if we do get to this place, the only choice that we get is between “basic” and “full” transmission. “Send nothing, please, nothing at all” is not available as an option.

In any case, all these complicated settings are only about the data that the Windows 10 operating system will collect about my computer. The data transmissions by the browser, from the app tiles, or by the anti-virus “Defender” cannot be switched off anywhere at all. And then there is voice recognition, the search in the start menu, and on and on …

The Bavarian Privacy Commissioner has documented in a “Windows 10 Investigation Report” how hard, bordering on impossible, it is to silence Windows 10. Even if all telemetry settings have been changed by making more than 50 changes in the so-called registry (a database of settings that is expressly meant for expert users because imprudent changes could render the computer unusable), a Windows 10 computer will continue to send all kinds of requests to Internet services for tiles, updates or recommendations. These services will log the users’ IP address at least, even though the user has never wittingly visited a web page. Incidentally, registry changes can only be made in the “Enterprise” variant of Windows 10, which is directed at business customers.

We are not going to bore you with an assessment of the (il)legality of every single data transmission. From the user’s perspective it is simply a filthy trick that transmissions are practically unstoppable – in particular as many people have no viable alternative to using Windows due to reasons of compatibility.

Microsoft did already receive a “Lifetime” BigBrotherAward in 2002.1 Back then, Microsoft’s privacy commissioner Sascha Henke even visited the gala to pick up the award in person, saying that the company would take our critical position seriously. With the introduction of Office 365, Microsoft has handed over many applications and with these your own data, ladies and gentlemen, to the Cloud. That alone would have been worth a new award. Even as early as 2011 – two years before Snowden – Caspar Bowden, then chief privacy advisor at Microsoft, warned about intelligence agency access to Cloud data. He poignantly pointed out that Microsoft was sharing their customers’ contents with NSA, CIA & co., because US services are given access to all Cloud data by the 2008 FISA act (Foreign Intelligence Services Act) – and non-US citizens have no legal recourse. Microsoft fired Caspar Bowden for his urgent warnings in 2011. The had better listened to him!

With Windows 10 incessantly “phoning home”, Microsoft’s products have now turned into an intolerable problem!

Congratulations, Microsoft, for now having earned your second BigBrotherAward.

1 BigBrotherAward 2002 for Microsoft: