Windows 10, Chicken Little, and the Digital Divide

by Sunita

Windows 10 released last week, to more hoopla and good press than Microsoft usually gets these days. I downloaded and installed my free upgrade on Thursday and have been tweaking it and getting used to it slowly. I only have it on a tablet at the moment, but I’m liking it enough that I will probably install it on my MacBook Pro (my work machine) via BootCamp.

In addition to the laudatory articles, there have been a series of articles about various aspects of the new release, especially those having to do with integrating different functions: Cortana, which draws on email, browsing, and calendar (among others) to optimize its efficiency, and WiFi Sense, which allows the sharing of hotspots and personal WiFi networks among socially connected users.

The toplining of “smart” software has been met with considerable apprehension, some of which tips over into breathless headlines such as “Windows 10 is spying on almost everything you do.” Microsoft’s security settings are long and detailed, and their explanations offer more transparency about data collection and recording than we’re used to. For example, telemetry has been around for years, but now people are noticing that it can’t be turned off.

Unlike the two big mobile systems (iOS and Android), Windows is overwhelmingly identified with computers. Not tablets, not phones, just computers. Something like 90 percent of the world’s computers run Windows, while only tiny fraction of tablets and phones run Windows or Windows Mobile. So shrinking the gap between mobile and computer has different ramifications, both practically and symbolically. In the case of Windows 10, some of the most talked-about changes are features that people take for granted in mobile but haven’t thought about as being part of their computer use.

At this point, people who use Macs are almost certainly people who use iPhones or iPads, so the increasing convergence between OSX and iOS isn’t a problem for many of them. For someone like me, who loved OSX but not iOS, it is. But I’m one of a tiny, tiny minority, useful primarily for illuminating things that satisfied iOS users may not notice.

But Windows users think of Windows as running the computer. Full stop. They want to think of it residing there, able to be disconnected and still run locally in the same way.

Microsoft has rightly decided that it won’t survive in the long term if it doesn’t get a stronger foothold in the mobile market, or at least have congruence between mobile and non-mobile platforms. Windows 8 started to collapse this distinction, and its interface made a lot of people hate it. They wanted the desktop. They didn’t want to learn the Metro interface. This is unsurprising. People don’t like change on things they take for granted, but also, Metro was about touch and most computer screens weren’t touch. Even when they were, they were new and people were still learning them. Windows 8 and 8.1 asked users to learn both a new interface and a new way of computer-using at the same time. Many people rebelled.

Windows 10 rolls back the most egregious Metro design features and restores the familiar desktop. But it is still all-in with connectivity and integrated functions. And this is freaking some people out.

Microsoft has made some boneheaded choices, in my opinion. WiFi Sense should have been wholly opt-in. People aren’t noticing that the contact choices are opt-in because they’re fixated on WiFi Sense being opt-out. In fact, your contacts are not included by default in WiFi Sense; you have to enable each of the groups of contacts individually. But the initial opt-out of WiFi Sense means a lot of people either miss that distinction or think it doesn’t matter. An express install (the most common way of installing Windows 10) will turn on WiFi Sense by default but won’t connect to any of your contact groups without you taking several more steps.

If you look at what Cortana does, it’s very much in line with Siri and Google Now. That’s the whole point; Microsoft wants to leverage its Outlook (and other) users to draw them into a service like those of its competitors. But while you may be fine with that on your phone (people who’ve never used a smartphone can wind up loving Siri right away), you don’t necessarily expect that on your computer. Why does Cortana need to look at your email? For the same reasons Google Now looks at your Gmail and your Gcal and tells you how long it will take you to get to work. But your Windows program hasn’t done that before. It hasn’t been proactive like that.

If you don’t want that kind of integration, you can turn off Cortana with a click. It’s not a big deal. But it’s worth remembering that’s where all these programs are going. Windows isn’t staying on your desk anymore. Of course, Microsoft programs haven’t been limited to your computer for over a decade; Word started requiring internet connectivity to function fully in the early 2000s. But the integration with the online world has been gradual, and many people view their computer as something qualitatively different from their phone.

There is one other aspect of WiFi Sense that no one is talking about much, one that has implications for people who are extremely sensitive to mobile data charges and/or who spend time in areas where connectivity is difficult. That is the option to connect to WiFi hotspots that your contacts have used. It’s separate from sharing your own WiFi with your contacts, but it uses the same contacts lists. If you enable this provision you are automatically connected to hotspots they use when those hotspots are available (it’s a bit like phone companies’ hotspot access systems, but it uses crowdsourcing). This also has obvious security/privacy issues, but for some people that tradeoff will be worth it, especially people on the wrong side of the digital divide. When I see tech types telling everyone to turn off WiFi sense, I wonder if they have ever met someone who might rationally make a different tradeoff. I sure have.

Finally, railing against Microsoft’s TOS and privacy/security is fine, but it is imperative that we keep in mind that Windows 10 is more of the same, not some unique departure. The entire Internet of Things is a massive privacy problem in the making (and yes, that includes you, Apple Watch, and you, Fitbit). A Sky is Falling approach is demonstrably unhelpful. Our privacy legislation lags way behind data-collection reality. But over and over again it has been shown that when people feel unable to change the privacy issues that worry them, they resign themselves to not having privacy rather than lobbying for better laws. And they don’t change their behavior. This is the worst of all possible worlds.

Absolutely pick apart the security flaws in Windows 10. But put them in the context of privacy and security flaws in every system. This isn’t a Windows problem. This is a 21stC data problem.