Cortana: The spy in Windows 10

Cortana, Windows 10’s built-in virtual assistant, is both really cool and really creepy

When I first saw Mr. Spock talking to the Enterprise’s computer, I thought it was so cool. I still do. But the more I look at Cortana, Windows 10’s inherent virtual assistant, the more creeped out I get.

Let’s start with Cortana’s fundamental lust for your data. When it’s working as your virtual assistant it’s collecting your every keystroke and spoken syllable. It does this so it can be more helpful to you. If you don’t like that, well, you’ve got more problems than just Cortana. Google Now and Apple Siri do the same things. And it’s not just virtual assistants; every cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) does this to one degree or another — Google Docs, Office 365, whatever.

But Cortana doesn’t stop there. With the recently released Windows 10 Anniversary Update, hereafter Windows 10 SP1, you can’t shut Cortana off.

Maybe you don’t mind Microsoft listening to your every word so it can catch when you say, “Hey, Cortana.” I do. Yes, I want the coolness factor of being able to talk to my computer. But I want the reassurance that it’s not listening when I don’t need it to be. I want a simple on/off switch. Windows 10 SP1 doesn’t have one. This is interesting, though: Windows 10 Education does. Microsoft apparently is willing to respect the privacy of students. The rest of us? Not so much.

What you can do in Windows 10 SP1 is cripple Cortana when you install the operating system. But Cortana then becomes no more than a front end to Microsoft’s Bing search engine. You lose the ability to talk to your computer. You’ll no longer be able to tell Windows 10 to get you an Uber or tell you how the Chicago Cubs did today.

If you’re anti-Cortana, don’t install Windows 10 SP1 with “Express settings.” Instead, follow the steps described by Jared Newman in PC World. You will make Windows 10 less useful but a lot more private. If you’re not comfortable with Cortana collecting your contacts, location, calendar data, and text and email content and communication history, you’ll want to do this. Don’t, though, if you want the full Cortana experience and you don’t mind Microsoft collecting everything except your car keys.

And maybe you don’t. Many of us are reconciled to the mantra of the internet economy: “If you’re not paying for it, you are the product.” Companies such as Facebook and Google give all their free social and search goodies in return for our web history, which they then transform into cash with targeted advertising. And as for Microsoft, it makes a point of saying Cortana doesn’t do that. Why do I not feel reassured?

Now that I think of it, though, you can’t (easily) get Windows 10 for free anymore. So you get to pay Microsoft with both cash ($199.99 for Windows 10 Pro) and your data. Oh boy!

Microsoft also claims that Windows 10 SP1 is safer than ever, which I find even less assuring than the promise not to exploit all that Cortana data. Think about this: You can use Cortana from the lock screen. That’s right; Cortana is active and listening to when your PC is locked. Well, it’s supposed to be locked, but if it’s able to listen, how locked down is it, really? Not very!

Microsoft calls this a feature that gives you the ability to ask your PC simple questions without logging in. But I call anything that lets me input data into a PC without being logged into it a bug. It’s a security hole begging to be exploited. Windows, which God knows has had more than enough security problems, now has a new attack surface.

Fortunately, you can fix this one easily. Just open Cortana’s Settings and turn off the “Use Cortana even when my device is locked.”

By the way, Microsoft always claims that Windows is new and improved and more secure than ever. And yet, if you look at any significant Windows patch report, you will notice that every major bug affects every supported version of Windows. Shouldn’t the new and improved Windows 10 be immune from the bugs that affect Windows 7, 8 and 8.1? It’s funny how they seem to slug every version of Windows.I like Microsoft a lot more than I used to, but I’m not ready to trust it with everything and the virtual kitchen sink. So I followed Newman’sadvice when installing the OS. I’m afraid I will never be as cool as Spock.

I should note that, if your distrust of Microsoft exceeds mine, you can rip into your operating system’s guts and totally disable Cortana. You need to beware, though, because it involves going in deep, to places where it’s really way too easy to foul up Windows. In killing Cortana, you could end up seeing a lot more Windows crashes.

In Windows 10 Pro, you type gpedit.msc into the Start menu. Head down to Computer Configuration > Administrative Templates > Windows Components > Search. Once there, double-click on Allow Cortana to toggle it to Disable Cortana. Log off and back on, and you’re done.

In Windows 10 Home, open the registry with regedit and head to

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows\Windows Search

Next, right-click the Windows Search folder and choose New > DWORD (32-bit) Value. Name this new DWORD AllowCortana and set it at 0. Now log off and reboot your computer.

Let me reiterate: If any of that sounds mysterious, don’t do it.

And, you know, why should you have to? Why can’t Microsoft just make it easy to turn off Cortana? I’d appreciate it.

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Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Computerworld (US)
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