Why You Shouldn’t Use “Anti-Spying” Tools for Windows 10

Since Windows 10’s release and the privacy controversy that followed, many “anti-spying” apps have sprung up. They promise to keep Windows 10 from tracking you–but often, they can cause more problems than they solve.

We recommend changing privacy settings using the normal options in Windows. These invasive tools can break things and cause a variety of system problems you may not notice until later, with no indication that the problem was caused by the tool.

What “Anti-Spying” Tools and Scripts Promise

These types of tools include Destroy Windows Spying (DWS), O&O Shutup10, Spybot Anti-Beacon and many smaller scripts named things like “DisableWinTracking” and “windows-10-tracking“.

They promise to quickly stop Windows 10 from “spying” and communicating with Microsoft in just a few clicks. They do this in some good ways–like changing basic settings–and some bad ways–like blocking web addresses in the hosts file and flat-out deleting services that are part of the Windows operating system.

The Problem with These Tools

Tools of this type can cause a variety of problems, and if you look around the web, you can see plenty of instances of people experiencing those problems. These include:

  • Blocking Windows Update completely, preventing the installation of important security updates and leaving your PC vulnerable.
  • Tampering with the hosts file to block specific Microsoft web servers, leading to various problems like Skype failing to synchronize chat messages or being unable to update itself.
  • Breaking the Windows Store, preventing you from installing apps from there and preventing it from updating the included applications in Windows 10.
  • Disabling the Windows Defender antivirus, which helps keep Windows 10 secure, and other system components you may actually want, like OneDrive.
  • Deleting various services and parts of Windows 10, breaking various things and potentially blocking you from installing major updates like the Anniversary Update and November Update before it.

For example, if you downloaded the “windows-10-tracking” PowerShell script from GitHub and ran it, the tool will block various Skype domains in your hosts file, preventing Skype from working properly. It can also delete various services from Windows rather than simply disabling them. The download page warns you should use this script at your own risk and that “We have not personally tested every HOSTS entry. Some of them may cause applications and services to stop working.” Running a not-properly-tested script that takes a shotgun approach to your operating system sounds like a bad idea (and it is).

Download DWS and you’ll see it will “disable Windows Update” so you will “not receive updates of new spyware”. The tool also notes that the changes made are “irreversible”, so there’s no easy way to undo them without just reinstalling Windows. That means you won’t get important security updates and stability fixes to problems like the recent webcam breakage, either.

These are just a few major problems we found with a quick look at a few of these tools.

Just Configure Windows 10’s Privacy Options Yourself

We’re not here to slam any individual tool. Some of them may work alright, but most of the tools and scripts we’ve seen look harmful and dangerous, albeit to different degrees. Over the past year, we’ve regularly seen stories of people who ran these tools and only later discovered something wasn’t working properly, forcing them to reset or reinstall Windows 10 to fully repair the damage (or, at best, go hunting for the setting that triggered the problem–a huge hassle in and of itself).

Rather than relying on some tool to change the settings for you, learn what Windows 10’s privacy settings do and change them yourself. They’re a bit scattered throughout Windows 10, but they’re not hard to find if you have a good guide. Run through our list of the various options that “phone home” on Windows 10 and you can disable them in a safe way.

Even Tools Can’t Block Everything on Windows 10

Some settings aren’t available for a good reason–you shouldn’t disable Windows Update entirely, for example as security updates are crucial. You can’t fully disable telemetry on Home or Professional editions of Windows 10. Many tools set the “Allow Telemetry” value to “0” and say they’ve disabled telemetry. That only works on the Enterprise and Education editions of Windows 10. A value of “0” just chooses the Basic telemetry level on Home and Professional editions. In other words, it’s complete snake oil.

In other cases, Microsoft can easily work around these changes. Windows 10 actually ignores the hosts file for certain domains, which means attempting to block domains in your hosts file won’t actually do anything. So once again, these anti-spying tools and scripts aren’t living up to their promises.

Instead of using one of these tools, do your research on what these controversial Windows 10 features actually do. That way, you can turn off the stuff that actually matters to you. Microsoft uses the telemetry features to identify bugs and decide which features it should work on, not to steal your personal documents. So you may find these features are not as sinister as they might seem.

If you have a major philosophical problem with the fact that Windows 10 doesn’t let you avoid non-security updates or disable telemetry, don’t try to fix it. Instead, just switch to another operating system, like Linux or Windows 7 (or Windows 10 Enterprise, if your organization is eligible).

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 Twitter.