Windows 10 makes diagnostic data collection compulsory

Microsoft has expanded its diagnostic data collection with Windows 10, making what had been a voluntary telemetry program now mandatory.

Microsoft has expanded its diagnostic data collection with Windows 10, making mandatory what had been a voluntary telemetry program.

Windows 10 includes a telemetry and diagnostics service that cannot be fully disabled. In earlier editions of the OS -- including Windows 7, 8 and 8.1 -- Microsoft's data gathering was optional. Users had to agree to join the "Customer Experience Improvement Program," or CEIP, for telemetry to be collected and sent to the Redmond, Wash. company from those operating systems. And if users changed their mind, they could stop it.

Microsoft kicked off CEIP with Windows Vista in late 2006. According to the CEIP documentation, the data collected is used "to improve the products and features customers use most often and to help solve problems." CEIP harvests data from both Microsoft's own software, including the operating system, and from "third-party applications that interact with Microsoft products."

The broad swath of data collected by CEIP includes everything from how often the USB port on the device was used to where Web browsers were directed.

In Windows 10, the equivalent of CEIP is compulsory.

Dubbed "Feedback & diagnostics," the feature in Windows 10 and Windows 10 Pro -- the two SKUs (stock-keeping units) bundled with new devices and used by all consumers and many businesses -- is not only on by default but cannot be completely deactivated without a dangerous trip into the Windows Registry.

Feedback & diagnostics comes with three settings in Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro: Basic, Enhanced and Full. The latter is the default setting, and the one that Microsoft tags as "Recommended" in the OS's settings panel.

A FAQ explains what each of those settings means, at least in general terms.

Microsoft describes Basic as collecting "data that is vital to the operation of Windows," and to prove that, requires it as a minimum before serving the device with updates via Windows Update. "But some apps and features may not work correctly or at all" with Basic, the company warns.

The other settings collect an increasing amount of data from a Windows 10 PC. Enhanced, for example, logs such things as "how frequently or how long you use certain features or apps and which apps you use most often." Meanwhile, Full switches on other data gleaning, including advanced diagnostics "that collect ... such [things] as system files or memory snapshots, which may unintentionally include parts of a document you were working on when a problem occurred."

In return for the data harvesting, Microsoft promises benefits, including "an enhanced and personalized Windows experience," although it does not define what that is.

Windows Insiders, those who have opted in to Microsoft's preview program, have their devices automatically pegged to the "Full" setting, which they cannot change.

Feedback & diagnostics can be disabled by editing the Windows Registry, the finicky database where the OS stores configuration settings. Because a single mistake can corrupt the Registry enough to make the device unbootable, editing is usually done only by advanced and power users. There are several sources online for instructions on how to switch off the service; use a search string such as disable 'Windows 10' diagnostics to locate them.

In June, Microsoft also updated Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (SP1) and the April 2014 Windows 8.1 Update -- the supported versions of those editions -- with the same diagnostics and telemetry service used in Windows 10. In the accompanying support document, Microsoft said that the new technology collected data only on systems owned by CEIP participants.

But CEIP usage is widespread in Windows 7 and 8.1: The program is enabled by default if the device owner had relied on the express settings configuration at first boot, a habit for most. Only by using the custom configuration settings were people able to deselect the data aggregation. However, users could switch off CEIP at any later time.

Microsoft took a similar, but not identical approach with Windows 10. After an upgrade to the new OS, or the first time a new device with the OS is run, the express setting pane says Windows 10 will "send error and diagnostic information to Microsoft." Going with the defaults sets telemetry to "Full."

But unlike with Windows 7 or 8.1, in Windows 10 a user who chooses custom settings to turn telemetry to "Off" isn't stymying diagnostics data collection. Instead, the choice reduces the amount of information Microsoft harvests from "Full" to the "Enhanced" level.

IT administrators of Windows 10 Enterprise, the SKU available only to large customers with volume licensing deals and the annuity-like Software Assurance (SA) program, can completely switch off diagnostic data gathering using group policies.

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Gregg Keizer

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