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What Microsoft Knows About You

Some months ago here, we asked for your take on Microsoft and privacy for a story called "What Does Microsoft Know about You?" which was to run in Redmond magazine, RCP's sister publication.

At last, that article is now online, and we're pleased to say that it has received a healthy response from readers. (That is to say that it has driven some traffic to our Web sites -- hooray!) Anyway, we mention this because there really is some pretty interesting information in this piece.

For RCPU (your editor did write the story...), the bottom line here is that a lot of the freaking out that goes on about privacy is just that -- overreaction to something that's usually not that big of a deal. Yes, companies screw up -- Google in particular lately, although you'll find in the article that Google really does take privacy seriously and really isn't looking to sell out its user base.

But, for the most part, companies like Microsoft and Google aren't interested in you; they're interested in how you use their products and services. So, they're really not trying to track you down or keep tabs on you. They're trying to figure out how you use their products so that they can make those products better.

Seriously! Now, once you give a company your personal information -- as you do when you sign up for an e-mail service, for example -- the game changes a bit. But even then, Microsoft and Google aren't using their respective Hotmail and Gmail products, for instance, to snoop out your medical records or report you to your boss for visiting 15 times a day at work (or for streaming live World Cup games at the office...ahem). They're just trying to serve you ads that they think you'll want to see.

It's funny that many of the same people who blog or who dish information openly to Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn get nervous about Microsoft's Windows Activation Technologies (formerly known as WGA) or Google's retention of search information. By far, the greatest risk of privacy loss involves users voluntarily giving up information.

Microsoft and Google don't make money by selling your personal information, and furthermore they certainly don't want to alienate their own users by, for instance, selling their medical information to insurance companies. That's just not how their business models work. Granted, it's pretty annoying to have to use WAT in order to use Windows or to have to agree to a 4000-word-long privacy policy that's somewhat incomprehensible in order to sign up for online e-mail, but those things are a lot less scary than they seem.

That doesn't mean, of course, that users shouldn't be vigilant about privacy or question vendors (most of which take information from you in some way) when something looks dodgy. But while caution is a must, living in fear of software vendors is just not necessary. They're not out to get you.

What are your biggest concerns regarding privacy? Should users be more fearful than we're suggesting they should be? Send your thoughts to [email protected].

Posted by Lee Pender on July 07, 2010


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