Reclaim privacy on Windows 10 with new Debotnet tool

Debotnet is a new application for devices running Microsoft’s Windows 10 operating system designed to make configuration changes to improve privacy. The application is developed by Mirinsoft, which you may known from programs such as CloneApp, the disk cleanup alternative Cleanmgr+, or the program download helper Roboget.

Debotnet is available as a beta release currently; interested users can download the latest binary or the source of the application from the project’s GitHub page. Just extract the archive the binary is provided in and run the software afterwards. Note that Windows may throw a SmartScreen warning because it is a new program and relatively unknown.

Debotnet

The interface looks similar to that of other privacy tools for the operating system (You can check out our master list of privacy programs for Windows 10 here).

debotnet windows 10 privacy

The application interface is divided into three columns. The second column lists the tweaks and modifications, the third provides a description for the currently selected tweak. The description may list PowerShell commands that may be run manually to apply the change to the system; good, as it improves transparency and provides tech-savvy users with options to verify the method.

One interesting feature of Debotnet is the ability to edit the description. While it may only be useful to some users, it can in theory be used to modify commands that the program executes or add to the description to provide additional information.

Note: The beta version of the application does not create backups, e.g. system restore points, at the time of writing.  It is recommended that you create a backup of the system partition or the entire system before you run it as you have no option to restore changed functionality at the time otherwise.

Basically, what you do is go through the list of available privacy modifications to enable those that you want to apply to the underlying system. Once you are done, you hit the “run” button and confirm that you want to apply the selected modifications to make the changes to the system.

You may also enable debug mode to make a dry run. Using it, you will be presented with information about Registry changes and other changes that the program would make it you’d hit the run button.

The program supports roughly 70 modifications at the time; some remove preinstalled applications, others disable certain features such as automatic updates, Cortana or Windows tips.

Most program settings are modified using a text editor; this is not overly comfortable and may pose some issues for inexperienced users but experienced users may modify theme related options there for the most part.

Closing Words

Debloatnet is a promising program for Windows 10 to tame the operating system’s hunger for data. It is a beta program and as such in an early state of development. I’d like to see an automated backup option and tweak categories to improve manageability.

Now You: Do you use privacy tools? If so which and why? (via Deskmodder)

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How to block the automatic installation of suggested Windows 10 apps

When you sign-in to a new Windows 10 profile or device for the first time, chance is that you notice several third-party applications and games listed prominently in the Start Menu.

Candy Crush Saga is probably the most famous example of such an offer but there are other games and applications such as Netflix, Twitter, the Windows 10 edition of Minecraft or Farmville 2 that may be displayed in the Start Menu.

windows 10 suggested apps

It is easy enough to remove these, just right-click on the icon and select uninstall to remove it, but that does not take care of future suggestions that may be put on the device automatically.

Tip: you may use third-party applications to uninstall Windows 10 apps. Free options include Revo Uninstaller Free, Geek Uninstaller, or AppBuster.

If you want to avoid these altogether, you need to make a change to the Windows Registry. Here is how that is done:

  1. Open the Windows Registry Editor, e.g. by using the shortcut Windows-R to open the runbox, typing regedit.exe and hitting the Enter-key-
  2. Confirm the UAC prompt that is displayed.
  3. Paste the following key into the path field at the top or navigate to the key manually: HKEY_CURRENT_USERSoftwareMicrosoftWindowsCurrentVersionContentDeliveryManager
  4. Check if the Dword value SilentInstalledAppsEnabled exists.
    1. If it does exist, double-click on it and set its data value to 0. A value of 0 turns the suggested apps feature off on the Windows 10 system. You may turn it on again at any point in time by setting the data value to 1.
    2. If the Dword value does not exist, right-click on ContentDeliveryManager and select New > Dword (32-bit) Value. Name it SilentInstalledAppsEnabled and give it the value 0.
  5. Restart the PC after closing the Registry Editor.

Please note that the setting prevents future suggested apps from being installed; it does not affect applications that are already installed on the device. You still need to remove these manually from the device to get rid of them.

You may also download a Registry file that you just need to run on the Windows 10 device to turn the suggested applications feature on or off. Just click on the following link (disable_suggested_apps) to download it to your system (thanks Majorgeeks). Just extract the archive and run the “disable” or “enable” Registry file to turn the feature off or on.

 

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Microsoft reorganizes teams to speed up Windows 10 development

Microsoft adjusted the development cycle of the company’s Windows 10 operating system to the development cycle of Microsoft Azure; the change explains the longer development period of Windows 10 2004, the next feature update version of the operating system.

Azure updates are released in the second and fourth quarter of each year, and the decision was made to adapt Windows updates, which were historically released in the first and third quarter, to the development cycle.

The company made other changes in recent time. It dropped the Skip Ahead ring entirely and made the Fast Ring the cutting edge development channel. Features get introduced into the Fast Ring earlier than before now and they are no longer linked to a particular version of the Windows 10 operating system. One interesting effect of the change is that it is now possible to push features into release versions of Windows 10 after they have been tested in the Insider Rings.

Microsoft appears to have separated development teams as well in order for changes to be pushed more quickly to Windows 10 devices. A recent observation by Twitter user Walking Cat suggests that Microsoft may have split the development team into a CoreOS team and a Shell Experience team.

windows 10 feature experience pack

The CoreOS team follows the Azure development cycle while the Shell Experience team may push out changes to Windows independently of feature update releases. The change makes a lot of sense considering that it gives Microsoft more flexibility when it comes to the introduction of new features. Instead of having to wait for the next feature update release, Microsoft could push out new features at any time it wants to any version of Windows 10 it wants under the new structure.

Another indicator for that is the release of the new Windows Feature Experience Pack. The version is now highlighted in the latest Insider builds under About in the Settings. While the app does nothing obvious at this point, it may be used in the future by Microsoft to push new features and updates to the system independently of regular updates.

Closing words

Microsoft used the year to reorganize Windows 10 development. It is now in a position to test and release features and feature updates independently of releases of new feature update versions of Windows 10. (via Deskmodder)

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Microsoft makes changes to the Fast Ring and hints at new servicing releases

Microsoft revealed in November 2019 that it would end the Skip Ahead Windows Insiders Ring. Skip Ahead was designed to provide testers with a glimpse of future versions of Windows 10 that would not be released anytime soon.

With Skip Ahead removed as an option, Windows Insiders can choose between Fast, Slow, and Release Preview rings. The termination of the Skip Ahead ring raised questions that Microsoft did not answer at the time. Would Microsoft continue to test features designed for future versions of Windows 10 — opposed to the next release — and if so, how? Would all Insiders be able to test these features or only part of the population?

windows insider program fast ring

Microsoft released a new Windows 10 build yesterday and with the announcement came the long awaited answers to those questions.

Fast Ring Insider systems will receive the “latest code changes” from the active development branch going forward according to Microsoft. Means: new features will show up on Fast Ring systems first after they are updated to new builds.

Microsoft notes that these new features are no longer matched to a particular release. They may be released as part of full feature updates or as servicing releases. Feature updates don’t necessarily mean the next feature update that is in the works for Windows 10. Microsoft states explicitly that the new code that it integrates into Fast Ring builds will be introduced when it is ready (or not at all as there is also the likelihood of it being pulled completely before stable release).

New features and OS improvements done in this branch during these development cycles will show up in future Windows 10 releases when they are ready. And we may deliver these new features and OS improvements as full OS build updates or servicing releases.

Servicing releases refers to updates that are similar in nature to Windows 10 version 1909 which Microsoft released this year.

While Microsoft stated in November 2019 that it had no plans to make future Windows 10 updates like Windows 10 version 1909, it appears that the company may indeed plan to release other updates, maybe Windows 10 version 21H2, in a similar fashion.

Closing Words

Microsoft reorganized the Insider system and channels, to take into account servicing updates among other things. Most Windows 10 users and admins I talked to were in favor of a smaller update like Windows 10 version 1909 and a larger more feature-rich update earlier in the year.

 

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Did Microsoft release another Windows 10 update by mistake?

Back in October 2019, Microsoft released an update intended for Autopilot-powered devices to its entire userbase; the company pulled the update soon thereafter. It appears that Microsoft made a similar mistake in December 2019 when it pushed yet another update designed for Autopilot-powered devices to other devices.

“Windows Autopilot is a zero-touch, self-service Windows deployment platform introduced with Windows 10, version 1703” according to Microsoft. It enables system administrators to configure and set-up new devices to prepare them for use in production environments.  The main idea behind Windows Autopilot is to make things easier for administrators and end-users alike, and it may also reduce deployment, maintenance, and management costs.

windows 10 update mistake

Microsoft acknowledged that the Windows Autopilot update KB4532441 was made available to non-Autopilot-powered devices. An addendum to the Knowledgebase support articles provides further information and the acknowledgement of the issue:

This update was available through Windows Update. However, we have removed it because it was being offered incorrectly. When an organization registers or configures a device for Windows Autopilot deployment, the device setup automatically updates Windows Autopilot to the latest version.

Our colleagues over at Windows Latest spotted the mistake and wrote about it on December 12, 2019. According to the information, administrators who ran a check for updates using the built-in Windows Update functionality of the Windows 10 devices would see the update returned (up to the point at which Microsoft removed the update).

The update would install but it would be offered again on the next check for updates. Microsoft claims that the update has no effect on  devices not powered by Windows-Autopilot and that it should not have been offered to Windows 10 Home devices.

Note There is no effect on Windows Autopilot being offered to Windows 10 devices. If you were offered this update and do not use Autopilot, installing this update will not affect you. Windows Autopilot update should not be offered to Windows 10 Home.

Administrators who notice that the update is installed on their devices that are not powered by Windows Autopilot may uninstall the Windows Update like any other update.

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Windows Update Blocker is a portable freeware tool which can disable updates with a single click

While Windows 10 Pro and Enterprise users can defer upgrades (to a certain extent), Windows 10 Home users cannot, at least not officially.

Microsoft never revealed why Home customers don’t get the same functionality as Pro or Enterprise customers in this regard.

Windows Update Blocker is a portable freeware tool which can disable updates with a single click

There are some tools which allow you to disable Windows Updates. Here’s a portable freeware program which does the same, Windows Update Blocker.

Windows Update Blocker.

You will, of course, need to allow administrator rights for the program to work.  Anyone can use the application as the interface is really simple. There are just three options in the window: Enable Updates, Disable Updates, Protect Services Settings.

Regardless of which version of Windows you have, you should see that the “Enable Updates” option is enabled by default. That’s because it’s the way the operating system is set to work (to annoy us with random updates even when you set Active Hours to a different time).

Click on the second option in Windows Update Blocker — Disable Updates — and hit the “Apply Now” button to disable the Windows Update service. You don’t have to reboot the computer for the change to reflect. Please be aware that this one doesn’t just defer updates, it stops them altogether. Selecting this option will make the “Protect Services Settings” usable (it’s grayed out when Updates are enabled).

Note: It is not advisable to disable Windows Updates permanently, as it is possible that an update could patch security vulnerabilities, or ship with critical fixes. So, you may want to re-enable the Update settings from time to time and keep an eye on updates, for instance by following our coverage here on Ghacks or by downloading updates for Windows manually.

This setting is the one which stands out. Why? Open Services.msc and you can disable the service manually, but it can get enabled again (by some program or even by you). But when you “protect” the setting, nothing can force the service from being enabled.

Try checking for Windows Updates once you have disabled it, and you’ll see it throws an error code at you saying “There were some problems….”. That means the program worked.

Windows Update Blocker green icon

The icon on the right side of the UI, the Service Status, indicates whether Windows Updates are enabled or disabled. If you see a green shield with a check mark, it means the service is enabled and running, a red shield and an X indicates that the service is disabled and protected (from being started by Windows). If it has a yellow shield icon with an exclamation mark, that tells you that the service is enabled but not running.

Windows Update Blocker yellow icon

Block any other service

Another interesting feature in Windows Update Blocker is that it lets you block other services of your choice too. You’ll need to edit the program’s INI to include the one you want to block. Once you have done that, get back to the program and click on the “Menu” button to select the “Service List Options”, which should open up like so.

Windows Update Blocker - other services

Here you are able to manage the service that you added. Honestly, this is not recommended for most users. Unless you know what you’re doing, never mess around with Services, Registry, or System folders as lots of things can get broken.

Windows Update Blocker works with Windows XP and above, not that you may need it on such older operating systems. But it’s always nice to have the choice.

I’ve always felt that the biggest problem with Windows Updates aren’t the patches themselves, but the way the operating system installs them. Why force updates to be installed when you are trying to shut down the computer? What if the laptop runs out of battery right in the middle of it? Or if you have a sudden blackout (power outage) which turns off your PC?

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Here is what is new in Windows 10 version 2004

The next version of Microsoft’s Windows 10 operating system is Windows 10 version 2004 (formerly known as Windows 10 20H1). While it won’t be released for a while, it is more or less feature-complete already.

The following information is based mostly on Insider builds but also on information that Microsoft provided, e.g. on its development blogs.

See also: here is what is next after Windows 10 version 1909.

Windows 10 version 2004: features

The list is subject to change, as some features may not make it into the final version.

Reset the PC using the cloud

windows 10 recovery reset pc

Windows 10 comes with options to reset the PC; this restores the default operating system image on the device (with or without user data). Up until now, it was necessary to use local data to reset the PC. Starting with Windows 10 version 2004. administrators may reset the PC using cloud data instead.

The main advantage over using local files for reset is that cloud resets include all the latest updates already. If local files are used, it is necessary to install updates that Microsoft released.

The new Microsoft Edge?

microsoft edge release candidate

Microsoft plans to release the first stable version of the new Microsoft Edge web browser that is based on Chromium on January 15, 2020. It is unclear at this point whether the new browser will be integrated into Windows 10 2004 or if it will be integrated at a later point in time.

It seems likely that the new Edge will be part of the release but we will have to wait for an official announcement for confirmation.

Other changes in Windows 10 version 2004

  • Windows 10 users who have configured the system to sign them in automatically need to make sure that Windows Hello is deactivated as it may prevent automatic sign-ins otherwise.
  • Restart Apps option in the Settings under Accounts > Sign-in Option manages whether apps that were not closed during shutdown are reopened automatically on the next Start.
  • Windows Search improvements that aim to reduce disk usage and CPU usage as well as general performance issues. Option to switch between classic and enhanced search indexing.
  • Quick Searches in Search Home when search is opened. Displays links to Weather, top news, today in history and new movies links that open previews from Bing. Also, web preview design updates.
  • The GPU temperature is displayed for compatible video cards in the Task Manager. Hard drive types (e.g. SSD or HDD) are displayed as well now.
  • Ability to rename virtual desktops. Just click on the desktop name, e.g. Desktop 1, and edit the name accordingly.
  • Option to change cursor speed in the Settings. Visit Settings > Devices > Mouse to change the cursor speed there.
  • Improved information in the Network Settings. Windows 10 displays the data usage in the Network settings in the new version of Windows 10. The option to toggle between private and public networks is new as well.
  • Optional updates are now highlighted under Windows Update to make things more comfortable. Also new: option to set a fixed bandwidth limit for updates, e.g. 4 Mbps instead of a percentage value.
  • Windows Subsystem for Linux 2 with improvements across the board including a “real” Linux kernel.
  • Accessibility improvements, e.g. to better highlight the cursor, Narrator quick summary feature and improved sound scheme.
  • The Xbox Game Bar may display the FPS in the update.
  • Bluetooth pairing improvements.
  • New 2-in-1 tablet experience.
  • Better support for network cameras
  • Windows PowerShell ISE is a feature on demand now.
  • DirectX and Raytracing improvements.
  • Changes are coming to Cortana as it evolves from a general assistant to a “personal productivity assistant”. Also, you may now chat with Cortana and resize/move the window just like any other.
  • New shortcut Windows-Ctrl-Shift-L to help troubleshoot login issues.
  • Passwordless sign-in option.
  • Additional Kaomoji and special characters supported.
  • Ability to install MSIX apps without sideloading.
  • Windows Sandbox improvements (config file support, microphone support)
  • Improved dictation support for multiple languages.
  • New “Your Phone” features including focus tracking, screen reading, messaging,  and support for more Android devices.
  • Ability to create events directly from the taskbar.
  • Calculator can be set to be always on top.

Removed or canceled features

Now You: What would you like to see in Windows 10 version 2004? (thanks Deskmodder)

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Microsoft: 44 million Microsoft accounts use leaked passwords

Microsoft ran a password-reuse analysis on over three billion company accounts in 2019 to find out how many of the used password were in use by Microsoft customers.

The company collected password hash information from public sources and received additional data from law enforcement agencies, and used the data as a base for the comparison.

An analysis of password use in 2016 revealed that about 20% of Internet users were reusing passwords, and that an additional 27% were using passwords that were “nearly identical” to other account passwords. In 2018, it was revealed that a large part of Internet users were still favoring weak passwords over secure ones.

microsoft leaked passwords

Companies like Mozilla or Google introduced functionality to improve password use. Google published its Password Checkup extension in February 2019 and started to integrate it in August 2019 natively in the browser. The company launched a new Password Checkup feature for Google Accounts on its site in 2019 as well.

Mozilla integrated Firefox Monitor into the Firefox web browser designed to check for weak passwords and monitor passwords for leaks.

Computer users who use standalone password managers may also be able to check passwords against leak databases; I have published a tutorial on how that is done in the password manager KeePass.

Microsoft has been pushing for password-less logins for a while now, and the company’s password reuse study provides a reason why.

According to Microsoft, 44 million Azure AD and Microsoft Services Accounts use passwords that are also found in leaked password databases. That is about 1.5% of all credentials the company checked in its study.

Microsoft cites a study in which password use of nearly 30 million users was analyzed. The conclusion was that password reuse and modifications were common for 52% of users, and that “30% of the modified passwords and all the reused passwords can be cracked within just 10 guesses”.

Microsoft will enforce resets of passwords which were leaked. Microsoft account customers will be asked to change the account password. It is unclear how the information will be communicated to affected users or when the passwords will be reset.

IT administrators will be contacted on the Enterprise side.

On the enterprise side, Microsoft will elevate the user risk and alert the administrator so that a credential reset can be enforced.

Microsoft recommends that customers enable a form of multi-factor authentication to better protect their accounts against attacks and leaks. According to Microsoft, 99.9% of identity attacks are unsuccessful if multi-factor authentication is used.

Closing Words

It is surprising that only 1.5% of all analyzed credentials were found in leaks; the study that Microsoft linked to saw password reuse and password modifications in over 50% of all analyzed passwords.

Now You: Do you reuse passwords? What is your take on the study?

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Here is why free upgrades to Windows 10 still work

When Microsoft launched Windows 10 in 2015, it revealed that devices with legitimate Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 licenses could be upgraded to the new operating system free of charge for the first year.

The company pushed harder and harder to get devices running earlier versions of Windows 10 to upgrade to Windows 10.

The company extended the free upgrade offer to devices with accessibility technology and ended that officially in December 2017.

windows 10 upgrade

We tested the free upgrade process several times after the official end of the period and discovered that  free upgrades were still possible. Windows customers who run Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 devices can still upgrade to Windows 10 for free, even in late 2019.

Microsoft never revealed why that option remained available, but the company did not terminate the option either. A user on Reddit, who claims to be a Microsoft employee, provided an answer yesterday.

Note: The user has not been verified as a Microsoft employee and it is possible that the information that is provided is incorrect.

According to the post, Microsoft ended the free upgrade offer because of pressure from retailers. Microsoft announced that customers needed a paid license after the upgrade offer expired but this was never enforced behind the scenes.

I work at Microsoft and have been since before the Windows 10 launch. That whole “free” upgrade for a year was fully marketing fluff. After the cut off happened, the direction given was that it requires a paid license HOWEVER, this was brought up by the brick and mortar stores that they were doing simple clock changes on customer devices during the upgrade challenge to get around it and then ultimately it was clear two years later that anything Windows 7 and up would go to 10 fully activated and still to this day.

One reason for that was that Microsoft executives were focused on the 1 billion devices goal for the operating system and that the number of upgrades was more important to Microsoft than the licensing fees that it would get from sold licenses.

WDG didn’t care pretty much at all because Terry Meyerson at the time cared more about his upgrade stats than license revenue as Windows isn’t Microsoft’s cash cow anymore. It’s the same stance back in the day where Microsoft would allow Windows Updates on pirated copies of Windows 7 as the bigger picture was to thwart security threats based from those copies.

In other words: Microsoft stated publicly that the free upgrade offer ended but did not end it behind the scenes.

The explanation appears plausible but requires validation before it can be taken at face value. Windows 10 might see a push in January 2020 when Windows 7 support runs out for Home users. These may be able to upgrade to the Windows 10 operating system for free then as it seems unlikely that Microsoft will block the ability in the coming two months.

Now You: What is your take on the explanation? (via Born)

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Windows Terminal update introduces support for multiple panes

Microsoft released a new preview version of the upcoming Windows Terminal application that brings the version of the application to 0.7. The new version introduces support for splitting the interface into multiple panes to run command prompts next to each other in a single application.

Microsoft unveiled the open source Windows Terminal application in May 2019. One of the main appeals of the application is that it allows users to run different terminal applications, e.g. PowerShell, Command Prompt, or Linux-based terminals, from a single application window.

Support for tabs was introduced recently to launch multiple command prompts and switch between them in the Windows Terminal window.

The new multi-pane functionality extends the feature set by providing administrators with options to split tabs into multiple panes. You may use it to run multiple prompts in the same tab.

windows terminal split panes

The Windows Terminal team added shortcuts to the application that split the interface into vertical or horizontal panes.

The two main keyboard shortcuts are Alt-Shift-Plus to create a new vertical pane and Alt-Shift-Minus to create a new horizontal pane. Similarly to Vivaldi’s Tab Splitting functionality, it allows you to split the interface multiple times.

As a rule of thumb: the selected pane will be split when you run the commands.

Keyboard shortcuts to move the focus or resize the active pane are provided as well. The shortcut Alt-Up|Down|Left|Right moves the focus accordingly, and the shortcut Alt-Shift-Down|Left|Right|Up resizes the pane instead.

Note that splitting functionality is only available when the default profile is used. Support for “other” profiles may come in the future though.

Windows Terminal 0.7 features another useful new features. It is now possible to use drag & drop to change the order of tabs in the Terminal window.

The third and final change allows users to disable title changes so that tab titles don’t change anymore when using Windows Terminal. To achieve that, suppressApplicationTitle needs to be set to True in the config.

Closing Words

Windows Terminal is getting better and better. Support for tabs and panes were highly requested features and bring the application one step closer to final release.

One downside is that the application is only available for Windows 10 at the time of writing and that it is unlikely that it will be released for earlier versions of Windows.

Interested users can check out the GitHub repository for additional information and download options. The popular application downloader and installer Chocolatey supports Windows Terminal as well. To install it, run choco install microsoft-windows-terminal.

Now You: Do you use PowerShell, Command Prompt, or another Terminal application predominantly?

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