The idea of a computerized assistant has been around for quite a while. They appeared in the writings of Isaac Asimov, had a feature role as Rosie the maid on The Jetsons, and have appeared in a number of superhero movies; namely in the form of JARVIS, Tony Stark’s trusted assistant. As the capabilities of our computers have advanced, the prospect of an artificially intelligent virtual assistant seems more and more plausible, especially when one considers Cortana, Microsoft’s vision of what a virtual assistant should be.
Since A.I. does not yet exist at the level it has reached in popular culture, such virtual assistants rely on programmed software to perform tasks. In turn, this software relies on data collected by the device through your use of it. However, has it ever occurred to you to wonder just what data Cortana is collecting by interacting with each app?
Some of the data collected by Cortana may make sense, while still feeling intrusive. In an FAQ article on the Microsoft website regard Cortana’s privacy concerns, the question “When I use Cortana, what information is collected and where is it saved?” is answered as follows:
“When you use Cortana, Microsoft collects and uses information including your device location information and location history, contacts, voice input, searching history, calendar details, content and communication history from messages and apps, and other information on your device. In Microsoft Edge, Cortana collects and uses your browsing history.
The answer continues, stating that information is stored “on your device, in your Cortana Notebook, and in the cloud on the Bing.com dashboard.”
What’s more, Microsoft’s Privacy Statement elaborates a little further on the subject:
“To enable Cortana to provide personalized experiences and relevant suggestions, Microsoft collects and uses various types of data, such as your device location, data from your calendar, the apps you use, data from your emails and text messages, who you call, your contacts and who you interact with on your device. Cortana also learns about you by collecting data about how you use your device and other Microsoft services, such as your music, alarm settings, whether the lock screen is on, what you view and purchase, your browse and Bing search history, and more.”
If you’re wondering what “more” information Cortana can collect, that list includes “your voice input, as well as your name and nickname, your recent calendar events and the names of people in your appointments, and information about your contacts including names and nicknames.”
While much of this data seems perfectly reasonable for a virtual assistant to require, it also is fairly unsettling to consider what other uses it might hold for the developing company. It is no secret that Microsoft (and Apple and Google) actively collects the information contained in your browsing and search histories in order to better target you with advertising, including information collected by your virtual assistant.
Furthermore, Cortana is always collecting data based on your location, a necessity for traffic alerts and (of course) location-based reminders. To add to the Orwellian factor, Cortana will gradually use the collected data to deduce where you live and work, in order to give you timely suggestions telling you when to leave.
There are steps you may take if sharing this much information involuntarily doesn’t sit well with you, either by clearing what Cortana knows about you, or by simply not allowing Cortana to collect the data in the first place.
To clear Cortana’s memory:
“To clear any interest or information from your Cortana Notebook, go to Cortana > Notebook, and then select About me or another service category (e.g. news, finance) to clear your specific information. Scroll down to the service settings, select the individual item or preference being used by the service, and then select the trashcan icon to clear it.
To clear all of your information that’s saved online in the Bing.com dashboard, go to Cortana > Notebook > Settings, and then select Manage what Cortana knows about me in the cloud. Then do one or all of the following:
- Under Interests, select Clear.
- Under Saved places, select Bing Maps and follow the instructions to clear your saved places.
- Under Search history, select Search History page and clear specific items, or select Clear All.
- Under Other Cortana Data and Personalized Speech, Inking and Typing, select Clear.”
To restrict Cortana’s ability to collect data at all:
“For each device, you can turn off some of Cortana’s data collection from your messages, such as the extraction of flight numbers and other information, in Cortana settings. You can also turn off Cortana’s collection of browsing history in Microsoft Edge in Microsoft Edge settings.
Turning tracking off for a particular event will stop Cortana from notifying you proactively, but Cortana will keep access to info from your communications. To completely turn off Cortana’s capability to track flights, packages, and other information from your messages, go to Cortana > Notebook > Settings, and then, under Find flights and more, turn the Detect tracking info, such as flights, in messages on my device setting Off.
To turn off Cortana’s collection of browsing history in Microsoft Edge, while you’re in Microsoft Edge, go to More actions > Settings, and under Advanced settings, select View advanced Settings, and then, under Privacy and services, turn the Have Cortana assist me in Microsoft Edge setting Off.”
Unfortunately, doing so will hinder Cortana’s considerable abilities as an assistant, so you will have to weigh which aspect you value more: your privacy, or the convenience. The reality of the situation is there will always be a trade-off while using Cortana, or similar virtual assistants. The decision of whether or not the convenience is worth your privacy therefore falls on your shoulders.
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