Software

Windows 10 is watching you

Microsoft’s latest operating system has a lot going for it. It’s fast, responsive, easy to use, and more secure than ever before. Unfortunately it also takes advantage of the consumer’s assumption of privacy. And I can assure you that if you’ve just recently bought a new computer or tablet with Windows 10 installed then your information is absolutely not private. This is due to some of the philosophical choices made when Microsoft created Windows 10. The reasoning on Microsoft’s part certainly seems to be benign; they want to collect data on how you use your computer with the intent of making your experience more seamless. I’m reminded of an old saying about paths and good intentions.

So you’ve bought a computer with Windows 10 or recently upgraded to it. What can you do to regain at least a degree of your privacy back? Follow this guide and you will be in much better shape!

General Privacy Settings

  1. Left-click in the lower left-hand “Search Windows” box on your Desktop and type “Settings”. This will launch the settings panel for Windows 10.  Left-click Privacy and follow the screenshots below:
    1. Win10-1
    2. Win10-2
    3. Win10-3
    4. Win10-4
  2. Click the back arrow in the upper left-hand corner of the box to return to Settings, then select Update & Security > Windows Update > Advanced Options > Choose how updates are installed, and turn the first switch off.
    1. Win10-5
    2. Win10-6
    3. Win10-7
  3. Next select Windows Defender and turn off “Cloud based Protection” and “Sample submission”.
    1. Win10-8
  4. Click the back arrow in the upper left-hand corner of the box to return to Settings, then select  Network & Internet > Wi-Fi > Manage Wi-Fi settings. We will turn off both switches to disable Microsoft’s Wi-Fi Sense service.
    1. Win10-9
    2. Win10-10
  5. Microsoft has included their Cortana personal assistant service in Windows 10 and their new phone offerings, this is their response to Apple’s Siri. Unfortunately it is also used to provide unique information about you and your habits to Microsoft and their advertising partners. You can disable this feature by Left-clicking in the lower left-hand “Search Windows” box on your Desktop, and clicking the gear icon in the menu that pops-up. From here you will turn off both switches. **This will also improve the speed with which Windows 10 returns search result for items stored on your computer.
    1. Win10-11
  6. And now for one of Microsoft’s most egregious choices with Windows 10, disabling the built-in Data Collection and Telemetry services. What those terms effectively translate to is that Microsoft has built a keystroke and activity logger into the Operating System. Tolls like this are commonly used by less scrupulous people and/or groups to collect personal information in order to steal online identities, banking information, etc. It is a reasonable argument that Microsoft has no intentions of doing anything immediately wrong with the information that they collect in this way, but I and many other people take serious issue with a software vendor monitoring the habits and activities of its users for any purpose. It’s also worth noting that this information would be easily packaged and delivered to a government agency if subpoenaed. In order to disable these services press the Windows key (has the Windows logo on it) on your keyboard and the “X” key at the same time, then left-click the option for “Command Prompt (Admin)”. Then copy and paste the following commands into the prompt:
    1. sc delete DiagTrack
      sc delete dmwappushservice
      echo "" > C:ProgramDataMicrosoftDiagnosisETLLogsAutoLoggerAutoLogger-Diagtrack-Listener.etl
      reg add "HKLMSOFTWAREPoliciesMicrosoftWindowsDataCollection" /v AllowTelemetry /t REG_DWORD /d 0 /f
    2. Win10-13
  7. If this is a new computer you were likely prompted to create a new account once you first powered it on, and if your didn’t pay especially close attention to the prompts you may have either created a new online Microsoft account or used an existing one to login to your computer. This configuration will now tie you computer to your Microsoft Outlook.com account and their other online services; inherently making your computer less secure and an even better way for a potential attacker to gain access to your personal information. Not to mention also allowing Microsoft to track the computer’s movements online and in the real world and relate that data to you personally. To resolve this issue go back to the Settings panel and select  Accounts > Your account and click on Sign in with a local account and following the prompts.
    1. Win10-14
    2. If this option is greyed-out for you then go to Sync your settings and turn off the switch in that menu. Then return to the previous step.
      1. Win10-15

Now, that was a lot of steps but once you’ve completed them you should be a lot further down the road to being more secure and regaining some of your privacy while still being able to take advantage of the most important functions of Windows 10. There will likely be more research done over time with this and and I will continue to update this guide accordingly. If you have trouble implementing any of these steps please feel free to contact me by clicking the button below. I’m always happy to help!

Fixing the Windows 7 Master Boot Record (MBR)

If you’ve used computers for any length of time you have probably seen your computer fail to boot to Windows once or twice. This will typically be echoed by a message like one of the following:

Error loading operating system

Missing operating system

Invalid partition table

If you are seeing one of these messages there is a very good chance that there is an issue with your Master Boot Record or MBR. The MBR is the section of your hard drive that tells the computer where it can find the Operating System. Sometimes this section can become corrupted and stop functioning correctly. Luckily this is a fairly simple issue to resolve with a little time and patience.

Note** You will need your original Windows install CD for this.

Step 1.

We will need to boot from your Windows Install CD. To do this first insert the disc into the CD/DVD drive, and reboot your computer. You should be met with a prompt asking you to “Press any key to boot from CD or DVD…“. Press any key on the keyboard and this will load up the Windows installer.

Step 2.

You will then be met with the following screen, click “Install Now“.:

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Step 3.

You will then see this screen, click “Next“.

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Step 4.

Next, click the button for “Use recovery tools” and click “Next“.

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Step 5.

From this menu select “Command Prompt“.

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Step 6.

From the command prompt you just opened type “D:” to make your CD/DVD drive the working directory. Then change to the boot directory by typing “cd boot“. From the boot directory simply type “bootsect /nt60 SYS /mbr“. 

When you see “Bootcode was successfully updated on all targeted volumes” the process has completed. Type “exit” to return to the previous System Recovery Options screen and click the “Restart” button.

Your computer should now boot to Windows normally.

**If you are having trouble with these steps feel free to comment on this post or send me an e-mail. I’m happy to help you out.**

Fixing Common Hard Drive Problems

If you have been into technology culture for a little while then chances are you have experienced a catastrophic loss of data. Maybe your hard drive simply stopped working one day, or you accidentally deleted something important, or maybe your disk has begun developing bad sectors. However it’s happened, most of us have been there. Lucky for us we are empowered tech nerds and there’s nothing we can’t fix! Ok, maybe we aren’t all Linus Torvalds, but that does not mean we have to take our data loss lying down. With this guide, my intent is to provide a few common scenarios along with solutions to them.

Scenario #1 – Accidental Deletion

So there you are, knocking out some work on your PC. You’ve spent a few hours working on a file. You save it to your regular documents folder but notice that things have gotten awfully crowded. Since you’re a bit of a digital neat-freak you start to clean house; deleting files and organizing others into sub-directories. Once you’re all cleaned up you promptly delete everything in your recycle bin to recover that precious drive space but suddenly that pang of dread hits. You’ve just deleted the file that you were working on… permanently.

Solution

Never fear! Lucky for you the file is likely not gone forever. In fact, it is generally very easy to recover a file that has been lost this way. I have recovered countless files for users with the help of a trusty tool called Recuva from software developer Piriform. And best of all, it’s free!

Recuva has quite a few fancy tricks up its sleeve such as secure deletion, batch recovery of multiple files, and gives you the ability to search by file-type. If you’ve made a mistake and deleted a file accidentally I could not recommend this more. It’s as simple as scanning your drive and selecting the file or files you need back!

After installing the software and running it you will be prompted with the recovery wizard seen below, just click next to move on to the important stuff.

You will then see a screen with a list of options of file types that you may want to recover, for this tutorial I simply chose to recover a previously deleted picture so I will select the Pictures option.

Clicking next will bring you to a menu of places that you would like Recuva to look for your files. In this case I know that I recycled my image and cleared the recyle bin as well so I’ll choose In the Recycle Bin . 

Click next and allow Recuva to scan your selected locations. Once it has finished you will be presented with a display listing everything it was able to find and whether it is recoverable or not. I prefer to select the advanced mode in the upper right of the window to get a more detailed look at what it found. From here we sort by name, recovery status, size, etc.

From here you can simply check the box or boxes of the files you would like to recover and then click the recover button at the bottom right of the window. You will then be prompted to give a destination to recover to.

And that’s pretty much it! If it was recoverable then you should be able to find it with this software. Simple, huh?

Scenario #2 – Hard Drive Stopped Showing Up in Drive Listing

You boot your PC and are all ready to start working with some file but when you open My Computer you only see your C: drive! Unfortunately, this can be caused by quite a lot of things, some of them are simply not recoverable, but there’s always hope.

Solution #1

If you’re lucky, this may simply be a case of Windows not initializing your disk correctly during boot. To fix this, simply click Start -> Right-Click Computer -> Select Manage. From here you will need to expand the Storage tree and select Disk Management. This should enumerate all disks attached to your machine. If Windows failed to initialize it for some reason, simply loading this panel can give it the swift kick it needs to find the disk again.

Before you leave though, you should probably assign it a drive letter if one hasn’t already been assigned. To do this, you simply right-click on the drive that you want and select Change Drive Letter and Paths. From here you can set the drive to any letter you choose.

Solution #2

If the previous solution didn’t work, your problems may be a bit worse than Windows being flakey. My next step to troubleshoot an issue like this is to remove the drive from the machine or its enclosure if it is external, and connect it to the computer with a USB-to-SATA adapter. A perfect example can be found here on Amazon. Typically these can be bought for under $20 and they are really handy to have around. Below you can see an example of how an adapter like this would be connected to your drive and PC.

The idea here is to remove all possible hardware issues by using a known-functional device to connect the disk to your machine. From here Windows should detect the disk as normal if the disk is actually working correctly.

Scenario #3 – Warning Messages During Boot-Up

Pretty much all hard drives nowadays have some form of diagnostic capabilities. In Operating Systems like Windows most of these diagnostics are monitored in the background. Upon booting into your OS most will perform a basic diagnostic of the hardware and filesystem to ensure a clean boot. This is why you may occasionally see Windows fail to boot fully and inform you that it needs to perform a chkdsk (check disk function) where it actually scans the drive for bad sectors. If this continues to be a problem it may very well be an indication of impending data loss. Luckily there are steps we can take to resolve these issues even after they’ve done damage to a drive.

Solution

This method can really go hand-in-hand with the previous as we would prefer to eliminate all possible hardware issues. There are innumerable tools out there that will do data recovery for you; many of them are free, but these also typically require more than a novice’s understanding of computers. I have used many of these tools before, but by far one of the most reliable has been SpinRite. This is a tool that can get you out of some seriously bad spots with a drive, and for the cost ($89) it’s nothing compared to sending in a drive to be recovered by a professional company. I don’t really have the room to go into detail on how to use the tool here as that could easily be an entire article unto itself, but I can tell you that the tool is quite simple to use.

After purchasing the software from the SpinRite website you will need to download and burn the image file that you downloaded. If you are unfamiliar with how to do this then please see this tutorial. Once you have your recovery CD simply reboot your computer with the disc in the drive and tell it to boot from that disc. This process may vary, but typically this can be done by pressing the F12 key and selecting your disc drive from the menu.

Once the software has loaded you will be presented with a few options; in this particular case we will be selecting the Level 2 option to perform a data recovery.

You will then see a menu of the drives that the software has detected, to select it press the space bar. You will then see a screen that reviews all the selections you have made.

All you need to do now is press Enter and wait. The length of time this will take will be dependent on how large your drive is and how badly damaged some of the sectors on it are. It is not uncommon for this process to take upwards of an entire day, but it might just be worth it to get those family photos back without paying through the nose.

**It is very important that after you recover your data in this manner that you immediately backup EVERYTHING important on it to a new hard drive. SpinRite will only recover data from bad sectors and move them to new ones. That means that if you continue using the drive in this manner you run the risk of losing some data forever.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot more tools and tips for home data recovery than what I have covered here. By all means you should read up and learn what you can about the technologies we use every day. Every one of us will face data loss some day, hopefully with a bit of patience and knowledge we will be prepared.

As a final note, you should absolutely back up anything that is important to you, whether on an external hard drive or to a cloud service. One can never be too careful, if it’s important to you, then it’s important enough to make a copy of.

Good luck and be sure to comment with your recommendations or questions!