Privacy Settings on the Microsoft Surface

The other day, I saw a popup that said “A program accessed information from a location sensor or default location”

Naturally, I said “WTF?!?! I’m not running Maps or anything, so why would something be looking at my location?”

Turns out that it was a weather app looking at it to give me the local forecast but it got me thinking about applications “spying” on me for marketing purposes and what I could do to stop them.

Windows 8.1 has a lot of features built into it that can be quite useful and one of them happens to be a comprehensive list of privacy settings which can help you control what Windows Store apps can access, certain devices or data, on your Surface tablet.

Don’t get me wrong, enabling these settings won’t keep the marketing people from getting information about your spending or browsing habits (there’s way too much money to be made, if you want to twart them, your only option is to stay offline and buy everything with cash/checks).

However, the privacy settings can give you some control over how much access installed applications have to your information and your Surfaces’ hardware services.

Keep in mind, this post isn’t about telling you what to set your privacy setting to. The goal is just to make you aware of the options, so that you can make an intelligent and informed decision on how you configure your privacy settings.

Before I start, you need to be aware that the settings in all (but the General settings) will not apply to non-windows store applications. So, this only works with apps from the Windows store. If you have a Surface RT/2 this is post is especially for you, since you can only install apps from the Windows Store.

OK, now that you know that, let’s continue…

Privacy Settings on the Microsoft Surface: Accessing the Privacy Settings

Privacy Settings on the Microsoft Surface - Privacy Settings Menu
First, let’s see where to access these settings. They’re under your PC Settings so they’re pretty easy to find. Just do the following:

  • Bring up the Charms Menu by swiping in from the right side of the screen
  • Tap the Settings icon then Change PC Settings
  • Next, tap Privacy as shown in the screenshot to the right.

In the Privacy Settings screen you will find 5 sections. The General section deals mostly with personal data privacy settings so let’s start there….

Privacy Settings on the Microsoft Surface: General Settings

Let’s first look at the General section.. Here you will find switches for the following privacy settings. You can turn the settings on and off by simply toggling the switch next to each selection.

  • Let apps access my name, picture, and other account info: This setting lets apps access some basic information about you. For example, if allowed, Skype will access your account picture to use as your Skype avatar.
  • Let apps use my advertising ID for experiences across apps (turning this off will reset your ID): Microsoft creates an identifier based on your Microsoft account. If you don’t want it to be used for providing personalized advertising, turn this off. You’ll still see ads in Windows apps that normally have ads but they won’t be personalized based on your activity.
  • Turn on SmartScreen Filter to check web content (URLs) that Windows Store apps use: This setting is a new security feature. Windows 8.1 uses something called the SmartScreen Filter to make sure that apps do not access malicious webpages and show them to users.
  • Show text suggestions based on what I type and write on this PC: With this setting turned on, your Surface keeps track of what you write or type and will make suggestions based from on past record.
  • Let websites provide locally relevant content by accessing my language list: Some apps can provide content based on the language you’re using.

You can look at your Microsoft Account privacy settings by tapping on the Manage my Microsoft advertising and other personalization info link and you can see Microsoft’s (rather long) privacy statement by tapping the Privacy statement link.

Give those a look and see if you’re comfortable with how they plan on using/sharing your information.

Privacy Settings on the Microsoft Surface: Location, Webcam, Microphone, etc.

Under the General option you will also see options for Location, Webcam, Microphone, and Other Devices. The settings in these sections control the permissions you can give Windows Store apps to use your webcam, microphone, location (GPS), and other devices. Since they all work pretty much the same way, we’ll use the Location option as an example so that this post isn’t loo long.

When you select Location you will see a global switch at the top that says “Let Windows and apps use my location”.

If set it’s to Off, no Windows Store apps can access your location data. Makes sense, right?

Here’s where there might be a little confusion: if the global switch is set to On, your apps will not automatically be able to use your location data. You will still have to set the switch next to each individual app that you want to access your location.

I know it’s a bit of a hassle to have to turn on multiple switches but, I think it’s a good way to keep you from accidentally letting an app have permissions you don’t want it to have. Think of it as a verification mechanism like the old “do you really want to do this?” prompts from older versions of Windows.

That’s pretty much it. These settings allow users to better control which applications can access information and devices. In addition, they also provide a way to see and edit which apps can use which devices – which can also be useful when troubleshooting problems with apps that don’t seem to be working as expected.


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