With Windows 10, Microsoft sells you out

Matthew 6:24I’ve written before in this space that “tech needs to decide which master it is going to serve.” This week brings another illustration of why, courtesy of Microsoft.

In case you haven’t heard, Windows 10 shipped this week. And unlike the last big release of Microsoft’s world-dominating operating system, Windows 8, which was kind of a gigantic mess, Windows 10 is actually supposed to be pretty good. And in an unusually customer-friendly move, Microsoft made the upgrade to Win10 completely free for a year for anyone with a computer running a previous version of Windows — which is to say, just about everybody in the world. So that’s all pretty positive stuff.

But when Win10 started hitting peoples’ computers, a few observant users started noticing something troubling: Windows 10 watches everything you do on your computer and reports it all back to Microsoft. And when I say everything, I mean everything: your location, what you type, what you say into your microphone or webcam, what apps you use and how you use them. It turns your computer into a giant, unblinking Eye of Sauron with a 24/7 connection to Microsoft HQ.

Why do they need all that information about how you use your computer, you ask? To “personalize your experience” — which, translated from marketingspeak into English, means to sell you out to advertisers. Yes, your operating system now wants to shove ads in your face.

You can see how much fun this is going to be by looking at the evolution of Microsoft Solitaire, the classic card game that’s been included with every version of Windows since version 3.0, which came out 25 years ago. 1 Like every other edition of Solitaire, the Windows 10 version is free. But! In a new and exciting twist, it now vomits up ads at you — unless you shell out $10/year for a subscription, in which case they graciously turn the ads off.

How big of them!

Now imagine this model creeping out of Solitaire and moving into every nook and cranny of your computer. Think of the many thrilling targeting opportunities! The Print dialog can now try to sell you new ink cartridges before it will actually let you print anything. When you run low on disk space, the Save dialog can start reminding you that USB thumb drives are 20% off this week at Best Buy. And on and on and on.

This would all be bad enough if it was just annoying, but it actually creates a more fundamental problem. It means that your interest in how your computer works and Microsoft’s interest are no longer aligned. While you will want your computer to do things quickly and efficiently and unobtrusively, Microsoft will want it to do those things slowly and clunkily and painfully; because every delay, every useless dialog box you have to click through, is another opportunity for them to show you an ad. And while you will want your computer to keep your secrets secret, you won’t be able to trust Microsoft to want the same thing anymore, because suddenly all those secrets are worth money to them. They can use them to match you up even more exquisitely with advertisers, who have become Microsoft’s real customers for Windows.

In other words, they suddenly have a strong financial interest in selling you out.

If you care about privacy, it’s hard to overstate how disturbing a development this is. The operating system is the most fundamental level of software most computers have. It’s the foundation that everything else you run on that machine rests upon. If your computer’s operating system is designed to spy on you, there’s no browser setting or anti-malware program or encryption protocol that can protect you from that spying. You’re compromised no matter how hard you try to protect yourself. It’s game over.

And it’s especially surprising to see this kind of move coming from Microsoft. They’ve had their ethical problems in the past (to put it mildly), but since their revenue depended on selling software directly to customers, they at least had no incentives to compromise those users’ privacy to make a buck. Now, like Google, they have plenty of those incentives. When a for-profit company’s money stops coming from you and starts coming from someone else, the interests of that someone else will always carry more weight with them than yours do.

So today, with Windows 10, we have a new case study in how technology can’t serve two masters. It’s either about empowering you, or it’s about empowering someone else to make a buck off of you. And while Microsoft’s rhetoric is still all about empowering users, their business decisions show pretty clearly that you’re not the master they are interested in serving anymore.

Notes:

  1. Well, every version except Windows 8 and 8.1, when Microsoft inexplicably stopped bundling it with Windows and made it a free download from their online app store. It’s included again with Windows 10, though.

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