Cortana is Microsoft’s virtual assistant. It, he, she, or whatever you’d like to call the software performs various tasks prompted by text and voice commands. If you need to set a reminder, search the web, or check weather forecasts, all you have to do is ask the virtual aide. However, like every piece of technology, Cortana comes with a fair share of risks and benefits.

Benefits of Cortana

As a virtual assistant, Cortana packs a punch. It can conduct desktop and internet searches, manage your schedule, send task alerts, lets you dictate emails, give directions, set a travel itinerary, and more.

Machine learning and natural language processing are what make Cortana so powerful. These give the virtual assistant the ability to understand nuanced speech and anticipate future commands by analyzing your personal data and behaviour.

Beyond the core features, Cortana integrates with third-party applications to further extend its capabilities. When plugged into LinkedIn, for example, it can retrieve professional backgrounds and references for an upcoming interview. Cortana also enables you to control smart gadgets like lights, thermostats, and security cameras, just by asking.

The risks

The privacy implications of using such technology is worrying, however. Much like a real-life assistant, Cortana can’t do its job well unless it has information about you. This means the more you rely on it, the more data it will collect.  

According to Microsoft, Cortana has access to the following data sources:

  • Voice input helps Cortana understand speech patterns and improve its voice recognition features
  • Location data lets Microsoft know your favorite places and when to provide location-specific alerts
  • Communications and email enable Cortana to identify your most important contacts and communication channel preferences
  • Calendars provides Cortana insight into your daily routine
  • Browsing history improves Bing’s search accuracy and gives insight into your search habits
  • Data from third-party apps – allows software developers to further personalise their services

Even though Microsoft makes sure that the data it gathers is always encrypted and stored in highly secure data centres, users should still be careful.

Every organisation is legally and morally obligated to reduce the exposure of customer information. This obligation is difficult to uphold when Microsoft is constantly collecting email correspondence and location data from your employees. With consent, Microsoft can even share data with government agencies for special investigations and subsidiaries that provide customer service.

Also, what if Microsoft’s servers and the data within them were hacked? Your business will be liable for noncompliance with the Australian Privacy Principles and will have to notify affected parties as per the Notifiable Data Breach (NDB) scheme. The resulting breach can severely damage your company’s reputation.

Controlling how data is collected and used

If you’re concerned about your privacy, you can limit the data Cortana collects. Open your Cortana settings by going to the search bar next to the Windows logo and clicking the gear icon. Next, go to the Permissions & History pane and select Manage information Cortana can access from this device. From there, you can turn off location, browsing history, and communication tracking.

There are even more privacy settings in Cortana’s Notebook (found here). In this dashboard, you can select specific information you want Cortana to stop tracking, like your schedule and other personal preferences. Keep in mind that doing this will hinder Cortana from providing personalised services.

Opting out of Cortana

To completely disable Cortana, run the group policy editor by pressing Windows key + R and typing gpedit.msc. Then, go to Computer Configuration > Administrative Templates > Windows Components > Search > Allow Cortana and set it to Disabled. You’ll have to restart your device for the change to take effect. You should also create a system restore point so you can revert changes if something goes wrong.   

Do note that this process requires you to go through crucial backend systems. If you’re worried about damaging your PC, it may be best to rely on experts like Empower IT.

Empower IT Solutions is one of the leading managed services providers in Australia that can help you with any Microsoft or security-related issue. In addition to customising your privacy settings, we also offer state-of-the-art security software to mitigate a slew of cyberthreats. Call us today to learn more.


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