Posey's Tips & Tricks

What Does Cortana Really Know About You?

Limit your digital personal assistant from knowing a little too much about yourself.

Those of you who read my column on a regular basis probably know that I'm a big fan of Cortana -- especially on my Windows Phone. As great as Cortana might be though, there is no denying that Cortana can't live up to its full potential without collecting some personal information about you. So what does Cortana really know about you, and is that information secure?

Cortana has occasionally been referred to as a digital assistant. When it comes to discussing Cortana and your privacy, I like to compare Cortana to a real-life personal assistant. A personal assistant can't do their job unless they have some basic knowledge about you. At the bare minimum, a personal assistant would probably need to know where you live and have access to your contact information. They would probably also need to have a degree of understanding about your personal relationships. If I had a personal assistant for example (I don't), I would want to make sure that they forwarded certain phone calls to me rather than simply taking a message. That call from the drycleaner can probably wait, but I wouldn't want to miss a call from my wife or from my best friend.

At the same time however, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The more a personal assistant knows about you, the better job they can do (at least in theory). Even so, you have to consider how much you trust your assistant. Will your assistant ever become disgruntled and misuse your information? Personally, I can't imagine ever handing over my banking information or the master codes to my security system to an assistant.

The point that I am trying to make is that in the real world, you probably wouldn't give an assistant unlimited access to all of your most sensitive information. You would instead consider what information to give your assistant based on how much you trust them.  I think that the same basic philosophy applies to Cortana.

So what does Cortana know about you. Well, according to Microsoft:

When you use Cortana, Microsoft collects and uses information including your device location information and location history, contacts (People), 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.

This information is saved on your device, in your Cortana Notebook, and in the cloud on the Bing.com dashboard.

Even though the statement above discloses what it is that Cortana knows about you, the statement is still pretty vague. I mean, what does "and other information on your device" really mean anyway?

The good news is that you can gain some insight into what it is that Cortana knows about you, and if necessary you can even give Cortana amnesia. That's certainly more than you would be able to do with a real-life personal assistant.

If you are concerned that Cortana knows a little too much about you then I recommend spending some time getting to know Cortana. Open the Cortana interface and look in the Notebook and in the other sections. By doing so, you will find a number of different settings that control Cortana's behavior and how Cortana uses your personal information. For example, you can tell Cortana not to track your flights or not to monitor your browsing history. There are also options within the Notebook Settings to clear what Cortana knows about you. For instance, you can clear your interests, search history, and other data. It is worth noting that these options tend to be a bit scattered and you may have to do some digging to find out what privacy options exist and how they are configured.

When it comes to Cortana, my advice is to keep in mind that Cortana is a component of the Windows operating system. Windows has its own Privacy section within the Settings dialog box. It you open the Settings dialog box and click on Privacy, you will see settings related to everything from your calendar to your location. Many of the privacy settings impact Cortana to at least some degree. As such, you should configure the privacy settings at the OS level and configure Cortana's behavior from within Cortana.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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