Stop Criticizing Apps for “Phoning Home”. Instead, Ask Why

Windows 10 is controversial partly because it “phones home” so much. That’s true, but so does every other operating system–and practically every single program you use. Saying a program “phones home” doesn’t have meaning anymore. It’s why a program phones home that’s important.

Why Are People Scared of Programs “Phoning Home”?

When people say a program “phones home”, they mean it contacts a server run by the company or person that created the program.

At one point, most programs didn’t “phone home”. They would just run on your computer, without ever connecting to the internet or downloading anything new. Even Windows didn’t automatically check for and download updates. Windows Update was once a website you had to visit in Internet Explorer.

“Phoning home” can be a problem when malware does it. Keyloggers “phone home”, running in the background to log your keystrokes before sending them back to a server. But that’s different from a legitimate, trustworthy program contacting a server for a good reason.

Many Programs Have Good Reasons for “Phoning Home”

Programs we use today are integrated more and more with the internet. Practically every program “phones home” in one way or another, and often with good reason:

  • Windows 10 phones home to enable all sorts of features, from automatic system and app updates to live tiles, web services like Cortana, online services, security checks, advertising, and–yes–telemetry features that give Microsoft statistical data on what features different Windows users are using.
  • Windows 7 “phones home”, too. It contacts Windows Update to find and download security updates. It also phones home in other subtle ways–you’ll see it trying to download http://www.msftncsi.com/ncsi.txt to test whether your Internet connection is working properly. Block that address and Windows will never be sure if you have Internet connectivity.
  • Many desktop programs phone home to check for updates, even if they don’t provide any other online features. They contact their server to see if there’s a new version. They may automatically download it, or allow you to download it.
  • Lots of applications “phone home” to synchronize your settings or data using an online account.
  • Quite a few applications–including Windows itself–do phone home to report usage data and information about application crashes. The developers can use this information to see what features people use in applications, and to help diagnose and fix recurring bugs. (You don’t like bugs in your programs, do you?)

This isn’t just a Windows thing, either. Android, iOS, macOS, and Chrome OS all phone home to provide online searches, updates, settings sync, real-time updated content, and more. Even Linux distributions like Ubuntu have been known to send local searches over the Internet by default.

How to See Which Programs Are “Phoning Home”

Which programs are phoning home on your PC? Almost all of them, probably. It’s best not to worry about it.

If you really do want to see which programs are contacting the Internet, the GlassWire firewall app is probably the easiest way to do so. The free version will show you which applications are connecting to the Internet through a pretty and easy-to-understand interface. Wireshark is a more advanced tool that will let you monitor your network connection and inspect every individual packet, but it doesn’t provide an easy overview of which applications are connecting to the Internet like GlassWire does–it doesn’t even let you easily link individual packets to the applications that sent them.

Note that GlassWire, like other firewalls, is designed to block certain applications from connecting to the internet. We usually don’t recommend third-party firewalls–Windows Firewall does a decent job of that itself–GlassWire is just a really nice way to see which applications are doing what.

We don’t really recommend using GlassWire to block applications, either. If an application needs to connect to the Internet for a valid reason and you block it from doing so, that application just won’t work properly. If you don’t trust an application enough to let it use your Internet connection, you probably shouldn’t be using that application in the first place.

Don’t Ask If a Program “Phones Home”: Ask Why

With practically every program on your computer connecting to the Internet in one way or another, saying that a program or operating system “phones home” shouldn’t be scary. It’s just normal.

Rather than ask whether a program phones home, you should ask why. A normal program checking for updates or downloading helpful data shouldn’t be a concern. Malware and spyware that lurks in the background and spies on you–whether it’s stealing credit card numbers or just reporting your web browsing activity to advertisers–is a problem.

Some features fall in the middle. You may not want your operating system or applications you use to report detailed analytical data about how you use your computer to online services. That’s your decision. Windows 10 searches both your local files and the web when you type a search into your Start menu, so you may want to disable those web searches if you regularly search for financial account numbers and other sensitive data.

But it’s important to focus on why an application is phoning home and whether that’s a problem. When it comes to telemetry features, what exactly is reported? Does the company anonymize the telemetry and usage data it receives so it can’t be linked to specific users? Is the setting configurable?

Some applications explain this better than others. The VLC media player, for example, explains exactly what it does in a popup you see the first time you launch it. Other applications force you to hunt these settings down. Windows 10 isn’t quite so up front, scattering these settings and details all over the operating system. That’s the real problem–not the fact that it “phones home”.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.