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Do we share too much about ourselves with Microsoft and others?

We live in the information age. That designation refers to the access we have to information that exceeds that which was accessible in previous generations. Given the amount of personal information we share over social media, apps, digital assistants and more the "information age" can justifiably be seen as an age where we share, versus consume, an unprecedented amount of information.

Privacy is an ever-eroding commodity we're sacrificing for convenience and exchanging for participation in the digital landscape that parallels our material world. Conversations, interactions, cliques, bullying, stalking, relationships, commerce, business, work, education, and more, transition continuously between the real and digital worlds.

Consequently, "credentials" or personal disclosures necessary to participate in these areas in the physical world are also needed or requested for one's participation of the same in the digital. The innate barriers that offer certain levels of security (.i.e. being offline) to our personal information on the physical landscape may not be sufficiently replicated on the broadly accessible digital plane, however. Thus, the liberal nature with which we trust entities with our most personal information may be positioning us for harm.

In the name of convenience

Microsoft's Cortana, like other digital assistants, can help support our daily activities. To be effective, however, they need access to a broad range of personal information.

Unlike other digital assistants, Cortana has a Notebook feature which allows users some granular control over what she knows about them. Still, for convenience sake, many people grant Cortana and other assistants carte blanche access to daily commute data, calendars, emails, flight data, connected homes, music, news, finance, and sports interests and more. Cortana will even wish a user Happy Birthday. She, or rather Microsoft, needs access to that information beforehand, however. Note, Cortana, Bing, Assistant, Windows and more are tools through which Microsoft and others glean information while serving users.

"Microsoft family" is a setting many enable to disclose who our family members are for the convenience of "coordinating and tracking shared events." Microsoft even wants users to enable Cortana's "Connect services" feature to integrate LinkedIn, Outlook, Wunderlist, Office 365, Skype and Gmail data into Microsoft's profile of a user. From a user's perspective reminders to follow up on something said in an email can be useful - or eerie.

For Microsoft, access to users' digital experiences, connections, interests and more via its cloud-based AI-driven assistant, Cortana, gives the company profound access to a comprehensive profile of hundreds of millions of users. The same is true of Google with Assistant and other services where we grant AI permission to "know" us. As Cortana and AI are further integrated into Windows 10, Microsoft may gain even deeper user insights.

The ID2020 Alliance and universal IDs

Last year Microsoft announced (opens in new tab) it is a founding member of the ID2020 Alliance. ID2020 is an alliance of governments, non-profits, academia, over 150 private companies and 11 United Nations agencies whose goal is to provide a unique digital identity to everyone on the planet by 2030. The Alliances Governance material reads:

By 2030 it aims to have facilitated the scaling of a safe, verifiable, persistent digital identity system, consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals agreed upon by the United Nations.

Microsoft reiterated its support of universal ids:

Each of us needs a digital identity we own, one which securely and privately stores all elements of our digital identity.

Additionally, ID2020's Technical Certification Mark strives to create universal standards for good digital identity.

As we observe these goals in light of the personal information we freely give Microsoft and others, and Microsoft's aggressive strategy to merge our professional and personal digital identities a broader picture emerges. We see the company's efforts to use cloud and AI to bring all of our digital activity under one, easily managed umbrella; One that fits well within the vision of the ID2020 Alliance.

Tracking everything you do

Companies like Google and Facebook monitor our web activity and mine a large cross-section of millions of users personal data encompassing what we post, share and search for online. Gabriel Weinberg, the founder of DuckDuckGo, revealed (above video) how companies track users' activity.

Google and Facebook use hidden tracking technology to see the pages users and the people they're connected to visit, to tailor their ads better. One study revealed Google has trackers on 76-percent of websites while Facebook has trackers on 23-percent.

Most users don't realize these companies diligently "follow" their digital activity, despite receiving ads that are often so eerily personal, it seems that their devices are listening to them.

Privacy no more

Billions of people provide platforms like Facebook with their names, birthdates, familial associations, friends, places, books and activities of interest, pictures (that Facebook scans with facial recognition software), job history, education information, life changes, picture locations and so much more. If we were asked to provide half that information by certain entities, we'd likely plead the fifth amendment: or refuse to provide self-incriminating evidence.

Still, we trust companies with a comprehensive cross-section of who we are. As current events related to Facebook and privacy, ongoing concerns about Google's privacy practices and growing concerns about Microsoft's use of Windows 10 and Cortana to cull personal information prove, companies have not earned that level of trust.

To escape these downsides of the information age users will have to opt out of some of the conveniences of A.I.-assisted support when setting up Windows 10, Cortana and other services, not use certain apps that require personal data, forego certain levels of social media interaction and curtail their browsing activity. Sadly, our physical and digital lives are so intertwined most people are willing to continue allowing privacy to erode while hoping for the best.

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

16 Comments
  • All that said, being pretty much voluntary, none of it HAS to be true... As a digital entity, we can be something completely false as well. O.o ie. Not the REAL me
  • Your usage will reveal the real you. NO matter how much you try to game the data collection.
  • I'd have to say that I think both of you are correct to varying degrees. Tracking can reveal A LOT about who someone is regardless of what they share but... Even this can be spoofed and proxied albeit that required advanced user skills. AKA "hacking/Spoofing/masquerading".
  • I don't know.. I never worried about it with WP because it presented a certain amount of organization that Android lacks. That coherence leds me to feel like WP is more secure. There's just so much redundancy with Android, and that makes me feel like sharing my PI is more of a risk, and I'm sure that's technically the case. Yet, Android always ask me to opt in, or out, so I guess it's our choice... But, I guess this article is about things we have little, or no, control over.
  • I think about Privacy everyday I use this new Android device I'm using. It's scary, I need a closed source OS device from MSFT with telephony, I'm all for it.
  • "Do we share too much about ourselves"? Well, lots of stupid people do, but I don't. "Given the amount of personal information we share over social media, apps, digital assistants" I don't use any "social media" OR "digital assistants". My computers are not personal diaries, where I enter all kinds of personal info. If you are "sharing" all kinds of personal info "over social media, apps, digital assistants" then you are asking - nay, begging - to be tracked. "Microsoft's Cortana, like other digital assistants, can help support our daily activities. To be effective, however, they need access to a broad range of personal information." Which is exactly why I don't use them. I have an Invoke speaker, but I am using it purely as a speaker. The microphones are disabled and it has no internet connection. Cortana is blind, deaf and dumb. I have NO interest in an internet-connected speaker listening to everything going on in my house. Why anyone would want such a privacy invasion is beyond comprehension. Likewise, Siri is disabled on my iPhones and iPads. Cortana on Windows 10 is reason #57 why I don't use Windows 10 at home. It is on my work laptop, but Cortana is - again - completely disabled by IT. Let's face it, a large percentage (most?) people being spied on/tracked/whatever AGREED to it by clicking thru the warnings after installing the software. Or because they are dumb enough to STILL be using things like Facebook and Google.
  • Naddy6969, when reading the article, it's not only the Facebook and Google on your phone. Your digital cash flow is gathered as well. So they can put you statistically in a container which fits you to a certain category of advertisements which covers 90% of your desire, based on the cash flow. It's impossible to hide. The access to US Bank accounts should be illegal for company's like Google and Facebook. And yet to much people are willingly given that info and the predictive models are growing. The only thing "they" need to do is tag you to a statistical profile. And bam you get "personal" advertisements based on the location you are and the money you spend. The predictions feels like they watching you specifically, but they don't need to. Because of the AI models build on billions of people who are willing to give. And you are fitting in a ALu head box, which points you advertisements. That's where they are good at. It feels scary.
  • What “digital cash flow”? I don’t pay for anything with a phone. I also don’t have Facebook or google anything on my phones. I also use fake names and addresses for every online account I have. Hotmail. Yahoo. Gmail (when I had a work-issued Android phone, which thankfully is long gone). iCloud. Windows Central. None of these accounts have my real name and real address. Good luck tracking me.
  • People here saying they don't share their info yet they use Google's web search on an Android device lmao. If you want real privacy you will have get an OS that's not Android and do web search on anything that is not Google branded to begin with.
  • I have never used Google search. On any device. “If you want real privacy you will have get an OS that's not Android and do web search on anything that is not Google branded to begin with.” That’s exactly what I have done. It’s not difficult at all to do.
  • Actually, don't web search, or use In Private browsing instead. Microsoft have confirmed that they also track web history unless you are using in private browsing.
  • Nooow that sucks man....
  • I'm not defending the data collection, as I totally agree it's way too much. But I disagree with this article for one different reason. Sharing data with personal assistants isn't less private than not having them. Yes, you need to turn on lots of tracking, but that data isn't shared with another party or service. Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, Alexa are all just front end layers of architecture to our respective services from those companies. In other words, there isn't any additional layer of complexity or risk by using them (assuming no 3rd party tie ins).
  • 🤔 that is a good point. You're not sharing more than you are already sharing by using their digital assistant. For example I use OneNote, MS tasks and Outlook, so they already have pretty much a lot of my personal data.
  • I actually may have a different point of view when it comes to privacy. To me, there's data collection then there is personal information. Data collection by your service provider of choice I have zero issues, with no matter the company. Adults just need to be adults and make educated decisions. Personal Information, SS# or DL#, medical records, etc need to be handled with the upmost care. The Experian hack we had in the US a few years ago, being the most pitiful example of exactly what NOT to do. Tech is changing and moving forward all the time. We're just on the front edge of the "curated experience" that is to come. Great things are on the horizon for us all!
  • Awesome informative article, Jason I enjoyed it thoroughly. :-)