By Susan Bradley
Microsoft has recently released updates to Windows 7 that allow it to gather more information about our PCs.
But is the company really tracking what we do on our systems? And can this data gathering be turned off?
Sending system stats back to ground control
During the development of a new OS, it's common for the beta software to include code that records system activity. That information is then use to find bugs, compatibility issues, and performance problems so they can be fixed before the OS is officially released. In fact, many forms of shipped software — productivity suites, browsers, utilities, and so forth — on PCs, Macs, and Android devices continue to send back crash reports for bug fixes.
For many years, Windows has included a feedback system — once called Dr. Watson — for automated troubleshooting. The system is a two-way connection; when appropriate, fixes can be automatically sent back to PCs.
But in 2013, security vendor Websense took Microsoft's reporting system to task. It noted in a blog post that the recorded data was sent in the clear — and that hackers could steal personal information by snooping the transmissions between PCs and Microsoft. That leaked information could be used to attack systems.
Websense strongly recommended that system tracking be turned off.
That recommendation might have been a bit excessive. Stealing telemetry data would require a "man in the middle" attack, which would mean that the hackers already had a foothold on the target networks or Internet connections.
Fast forward to Windows 10: Microsoft has increased the amount of information it collects for diagnosing problems with Windows and applications. But whether this is good or bad is not easily answered. If it results in better patch quality and faster responses from Microsoft, I'm all for it. On the other hand, I'm deeply concerned about the lack of transparency — what specifically is collected and how, exactly, is it used?
In this Big Data, post-Snowden era, we need to take the methodical erosion of our privacy very seriously. The information we willingly hand over, along with the data that's collected behind the scenes, both benefits us and targets us — and the balance is rapidly tipping toward the latter.
Given the heated discussions about Windows telemetry, I sent myself on a quest: Could I determine what information Microsoft gleans from a typical Windows 7 system with the new telemetry updates installed? (I was more interested in the changes in Win7 than what's built into Win10.)
In a classic case of good news/bad news, the answer was no. Presumably stung by the criticisms of Dr. Watson, Microsoft now transmits all diagnostic traffic from PCs to company servers via encrypted, Secure Socket Layer connections.
On a test PC, I tried viewing telemetry connections with the popular networking analysis tool, Wireshark (site). But Microsoft's security measures kept me from making any sense of what was traveling from my machine to Microsoft servers. So I'm still in the dark about what the company is collecting — but then so are potential hackers, I assume.
Backporting Win10 telemetry tools to Win7/8.1
What Microsoft built into Windows 10 from the start, it recently added to our Win7 and Win8.1 systems via a series of updates. (That's caused quite a tizzy in the blogosphere, with most of the "discussions" based on conjecture and hearsay.) For example, optional KBs 3075249, 3080149 and 3068708 give Win7 and Win8.1 data-gathering capabilities similar to Win10's.
If you have automatic updating turned off (as I have frequently recommended) you can ignore or hide those updates. But Microsoft has a habit of changing the status of some optional updates, moving them to the Important section in Windows Update and setting them as prechecked.
An alternative to constantly checking these "optional" telemetry updates is to turn off the telemetry services altogether. Windows Secret's sister publication — Windows IT Pro — provides advanced-user instructions for disabling the Windows Tracking Service; see the Sept. 9 article, "How to: Turn off telemetry in Windows 7, 8, and Windows 10." This technique will ensure you don't have to hide future telemetry updates.
But, again, there's a potential price to pay: Turning off telemetry in Windows could slow the pace of operating-system fixes. Moreover, this trick doesn't necessarily turn off all system tracking.
Other attempts to track telemetry transmissions
Another way to block Internet connections is the HOST-file technique (more info), which works for Win7 and Win8.1. However, on Windows 10, some users tried that trick to block telemetry communications, but, as noted on several websites — including an Aug. 31 Ars Technica story — Microsoft's telemetry system simply ignores the HOST-file method. In a big change from Win7, you must take ownership of the HOST file in order to make changes in the new OS.
My attempts at Windows 7 telemetry analysis were based on steps posted by software developer Rob Seder, who was investigating his Win10 machine. Following his instructions, I used Wireshark to log transmissions from Win7 to the following websites:
Although most of the urls in that list appear to be subdomains of Microsoft, a few, such as pre.footprintpredict.com, are related to the Bing search engine, as noted on the VirusTotal website.
An even longer list of MS telemetry-related urls, posted on the MajorGeeks site, includes domain names such as akadns.net, which is attached to the Akamai content delivery network service. Large companies such as Microsoft often offload some Web duties to services that specialize in secure content delivery over the Internet.
I left Wireshark running overnight. In the morning, it was clear that the Windows telemetry system hadn't "phoned home" often. And, again, the information sent to Microsoft was mostly unreadable by the network-analysis software (see Figure 1).
The 'Everyone does it, so it's okay' argument
That's not really acceptable. Most of us are willing to provide personal information to Web services — for mapping, searching, sharing, and so forth — for a better computing experience. But what happens to that information, now that it resides on Internet servers? Many users assume it's deleted when we no longer need it; but, in fact, we simply don't know. And that's what we should be most concerned about — the lack of transparency.
The difficult decisions for personal privacy
I started this investigation to see whether I could determine exactly what information Microsoft is gathering from my systems. I was pleased that this telemetry data is now protected — but I was also disappointed that I couldn't answer my primary question: Is Microsoft snooping on us?
But there's also the "Big Data" aspect. Will that data make its way to other massive services and get combined with other sources of information about us? I recently attended a technology conference that discussed Big Data services, and I came away both impressed and worried.
Still, as noted in a recent ZDNet article, if you've gone through Win10's numerous privacy settings and you're still uncomfortable about what the company does with your data, the alternative is to not upgrade to the new OS — or use "Chrome OS, iOS, Android, or any other system that's tied closely into the cloud."
I'm not ready to chuck those platforms, and I assume you aren't either. But that doesn't mean we should blindly accept vendors' data-gathering practices.
On Windows 7 and 8.1 systems, you have fewer privacy options. Here, I recommend disabling the Windows telemetry service. Neither OS will see significant enhancements, so we're mostly concerned with all-important security updates.
Open the start menu and click Administrative Tools/Services (or Control Panel/Administrative Tools/Services). Scroll down the list of services until you find Diagnostic Tracking Service. Click it and stop the service, then click OK. Now right-click the service and open Properties. Change Startup type from Automatic to Disabled (see Figure 2) and then click OK. (Note: If you don't see the service, it's probably because you're behind a domain and didn't get optional updates KB 3075249, KB 3080149, and KB 3068708 installed, install that service.)
I'm keeping the service disabled on my Win7 (and probably my Win10 systems, too), until I find out exactly what is being sent to Microsoft — or I feel more comfortable with the telemetry process. And I'm keeping a closer eye on all other Web-attached services and software. No matter what you think about Edward Snowden, he made all of us far more aware of how our personal data might be used.