Microsoft said Wednesday that by the end of July it will implement an updated, simplified privacy and services policy that makes clear the company will not snoop on your email or Skype calls to sell you advertising.
The new policy will take effect on July 31. At that time, use of Microsoft's services will constitute opting into the agreement, Microsoft said. If you want to opt out, you'll need to stop using the services or close your account.
Microsoft made it clear that, at least for advertising purposes, it does not listen in on your private communications. "As part of our ongoing commitment to respecting your privacy, we have updated the Microsoft Services Agreement to state that we do not use what you say in email, chat, video calls, or voice mail to target advertising to you," the company said. "Nor do we use your documents, photos, or other personal files to target advertising to you."
Oh, Microsoft's snooping, all right
But that doesn't mean that Microsoft isn't collecting your data at all--quite the opposite, in fact. The policy makes clear that Microsoft may ask for personal information when you sign up for a service, including your name and location.
And if Microsoft doesn't get the information it wants, it can always buy what it needs from a third-party company, it warns.
Microsoft already uses your information to improve its services, such as its Cortana digital assistant, which typically knows your location so it can provide a list of nearby points of interest. It also uses that information to provide targeted ads--the more information an advertiser knows about you, the more interesting the ad. (A Microsoft page allows you to opt out of targeted ads.)
Calling down the banhammer
Microsoft also made clear what behavior would result in pulling a user's access rights to its services, essentially banning the person from the Microsoft ecosystem:
Microsoft also made clear that it would not examine the contents of your email, even if it suspected users of trafficking in contraband Microsoft products, as happened earlier this year. Microsoft said then that it would simply refer the matter to law enforcement.
Here's another no-no: If you fail to log in once a year to Microsoft's services, Microsoft will terminate your account and delete all or most of the data associated with it.
"You must sign in to your Microsoft account periodically, at a minimum every year, to keep services associated with your Microsoft account active, unless provided otherwise in an offer for a paid portion of the Services," Microsoft's updated services agreement states. "If you don't sign in during this period, we will close your account (which means you won't have access to the Windows Services, Office Services, Content stored in your account, and any other product or service that uses Microsoft account). If your Services are canceled, we will delete information or Content (as defined below) associated with your Microsoft account, or will otherwise disassociate it from you and your Microsoft account, unless the law requires us to keep it."
Sign in, or else
It's very possible that simply logging into your Windows PC or an app will constitute signing into your account. And frequent Windows users won't have to worry. But for soldiers on deployment, for example, it might be something to think about.
As of now, there's no apparent mechanism for opting out of Microsoft's data collection practices, short of terminating your account and discontinuing to use Microsoft's services. And there's no indication that Microsoft is necessarily expanding its data collection practices.
Nevertheless, the simplified policies will undoubtedly be scrutinized by lawmakers and privacy advocates in the wake of Google's effort. It's worth a few minutes of your time.