Windows Live shares your Messenger contacts

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

Anticipating its “Wave 4″ Windows Live rollout of new Hotmail and Messenger apps, Microsoft made sweeping changes in how it connects you with its latest social-networking construct.

With the new Live format, Microsoft pays a great deal of lip service to maintaining your privacy; but my tests show you can’t trust what you see on the screen.

I took Microsoft to task for its privacy inanities in my April 22 Top Story, “Hotmail’s social networking busts your privacy.” That story obviously struck a chord with WS readers, generating nearly 4,000 page views of the column’s Lounge thread — an astounding number.

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Now, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the so-called new and improved, privacy-conscious version of Windows Live — the social-networking sphere containing Messenger and Hotmail — continues to share my personal information, even when I explicitly tell it to keep my info and communications private.

If you’re confused by the Windows Live moniker, don’t feel alone. Microsoft has changed the meaning of Windows Live enormously over the past five years. It started out as a rebranding of Microsoft Network (MSN), the company’s umbrella label for its many online services and sites.

With the change, MSN Hotmail became Windows Live Hotmail, MSN Messenger re-appeared as Windows Live Messenger, and MSN Spaces became Windows Live Spaces. The always-confusing Microsoft Wallet and .NET Passport re-emerged as Windows Live ID, which all Live users now see when they sign in to the service.

Then, in the Vista years, Microsoft moved a bunch of Windows applications into the Live fold as Windows Live Essentials, which included Photo Gallery and Movie Maker. Recently, Microsoft added many more apps and services such as Windows Live Mail and SkyDrive while other apps, such as Live Toolbar and Live Shopping, simply disappeared.

The entrance to all these diverse services is the single-sign-in Windows Live ID. Having a Live ID gives users access to the entire Live system — but for better or for worse (and it seems to be mostly the latter), it commits users to all of Microsoft’s confusing and difficult-to-manage social networking schemes.

Big problems with third-party tattling

Windows Live’s most pernicious form of privacy invasion is what I call third-party tattling. Here’s how it works: You and Mr. A have a conversation via Live Messenger. Days, weeks, or even months later, you and Mr. B also have a conversation. In Windows Live parlance, you are now friends with both Mr. A and Mr. B.

Tattling comes into play when Mr. A signs on to Messenger or Hotmail or Windows Live and sees that “Woody and Mr. B are now friends.” (See Figure 1.)

Woody and phineas are friends
Figure 1. Busted! All of my Messenger buddies now know I’ve been talking with the competition’s Mr. Fogg.

Similarly, when Mr. B logs on to Messenger, he sees that “Woody and Mr. A are now friends.”

It looks like Microsoft has turned what used to be Messenger Buddies into Live Friends. Buddies (to use the earlier terminology) were analogous to people you talk with on the phone. You assumed it was a private, one-on-one communication. Live Friends are more like Facebook Friends — it’s expected that what you say to one Live Friend will be shared with all your other friends.

I’m sure you can think up many different scenarios where that kind of sharing could be quite embarrassing (even lethal) — an informational gold mine for business rivals, political opponents, love triangles, wanted nuclear scientists; you get the picture. To put it succinctly, it’s none of Mr. A’s freakin’ business who else I’ve contacted with Messenger.

My idea of what’s ‘private’ vs. Microsoft’s

I talked about a similar problem in my April Top Story. Since then, Microsoft has completely revamped the privacy settings in Windows Live. But as best I can tell, the new settings don’t do anything to prevent third-party tattling.

I’ve spent days experimenting with Windows Live Messenger — both the current Classic version and Wave 4′s Messenger 2011, which Microsoft released in beta about a month ago. I’ve tried all sorts of permutations and combinations of the privacy settings in Windows Live but could not find a solution. There seems to be no way to shut it off.

Here’s a rundown of the steps I took:

I started with a brand-new PC with Windows 7. I downloaded the new Messenger beta and signed up for a new Windows Live ID. There were no legacy settings, no flotsam floating around — neither on my PC nor in the cloud. When I signed in to Messenger for the first time with my new account, Messenger offered to hook my Windows Live ID up with Facebook and/or MySpace. I declined. The last thing I wanted was to have social networking injected into my Messenger or Hotmail work.

Then Messenger (actually, Windows Live) offered to “Set up your privacy settings.” The dialog says, “Your friend list, picture and name are shared across the Windows Live Essentials applications and your Web profile page. Make sure you’re sharing the right stuff with the right people. Just pick a level and we’ll set things up for you.” You see the four choices in Figure 2.

Windows live privacy settings
Figure 2. On a clean PC with a new ID, Live lets you choose one of four privacy levels.

I’m not really interested in making connections with anonymous trolling marketers or lovelorn teens, so I chose Private. I just want to use Messenger to send messages. Imagine that.

When I think of private, I think that means just me or a very select group of acquaintances. (Facebook has Specific people and Only me privacy settings, although you have to hunt for them.) Some of Live’s privacy settings do offer more-restrictive settings such as Some friends, Just me, and No one, but they don’t all seem to work as I’d expect them to.

With Live’s Private setting, everybody I talk with via Messenger can see the names of everybody else I talk with via Messenger. They don’t have to lift a finger to find that information. Microsoft tattles — dishes up lists of my new-found Friends every time they log on to Messenger, Hotmail, or the main Windows Live page.

Dig deep for Live’s detailed privacy controls

At this point, if you’ve ever used Messenger, you should be sweating.

I asked a Microsoft representative for comment. (Microsoft does not allow its PR spokespersons to be identified by name.) I received suggestions for two ways to change the tattling behavior. Unfortunately, neither way seemed to work. In an e-mail response, Microsoft said:
  • “You can use additional settings to customize this option by selecting who can view your friends list and who can view your social updates.

    “When you select your friends list to be viewable by Just me, only you will be able to view that list of friends.

    “You can also manage and customize social updates from your friends by clicking on more options located on the wheel next to each of your friends feeds in your profile.

    “If you uncheck the box next to Network on this page, we will not show who you’ve added as a friend on your profile page (even to your friends).”
Microsoft’s first approach lets you tell Messenger and Hotmail that nobody else can see your Friends list. Here’s how it’s supposed to work:
  • Step 1. If you’re using the new beta Wave 4 Messenger, sign in. In the upper right corner, click the down-arrow next to your name and choose View Your Profile. That should log you on to Windows Live, with your Windows Live profile showing. Alternatively (and if you aren’t using the beta Messenger), you can log on to Live.com and sign in with your Windows Live ID.

  • Step 2. In your Windows Live profile, near the top, click the link marked Privacy Settings. You should see the Public/Limited/Private settings shown in Figure 2.

  • Step 3. At the bottom, next to the Save button, click the link marked Advanced.

  • Step 4. Under Profile and Search, click the line that says Basic information. You should see sliders like those in Figure 3. (If you don’t, click the tiny triangle immediately to the left of the Basic information label.)

    A slider controls your friends list
    Figure 3. The “Friends list” slider controls who can see your friends list.

  • Step 5. Drag the Friends List slider all the way to the left, to the point that says Just me.

  • Step 6. Down at the bottom of the page, click Save.
Adjusting the slider to Just me may keep your entire Friends list away from prying eyes, but in my case, it didn’t do a thing to stop Windows Live’s incessant tattling — it won’t keep Messenger from saying, “Woody and Phineas Fogg are now friends.”

Microsoft’s second approach is more subtle and much more difficult, but it didn’t stop the tattling either. Unchecking the Network box on your Windows Live profile is a very convoluted process:
  • Step 1. Sign on to Windows Live (Live.com) with your Live ID.

  • Step 2. At the bottom, below the entry for Messenger Social, hover your mouse over one of your Mr. X and Mr. Y are now friends entries. A wheel appears to the right of the entry. (It’s hard to find, but it’s there.)

  • Step 3. Click on the wheel and choose More Options. You see a checklist of 16 different Updates from Windows Live. The Network box is the eighth one on the page; it says Updates when people become friends.

  • Step 4. Uncheck the box.
If you uncheck that box, it may well prevent some updates from reaching you. This method didn’t do diddly with that Woody and Mr. X are now friends tattling in my case, either. Try it yourself.

Why has Microsoft put privacy in jeopardy?

I can only speculate, but here’s what I think has happened. First, Microsoft is extremely late and far behind the competition in the social-networking game. Facebook and MySpace dominate the scene. In a brute-force attempt to rapidly gain market share in social networking, MS tried to morph its two most popular online applications — Hotmail and Messenger — into social networking tools. And the new interface in Messenger 2011 brings social networking front-and-center. Messaging seems like an afterthought, tucked way over on the side.

Microsoft has taken Hotmail and Messenger accounts and turned them into Windows Live Spaces accounts. What’s more worrisome, MS has also taken the liberty of converting your Messenger contacts into Friends. It then shares information about these new Friends with each other. To try to prevent this sharing (and, based on my tests, you can’t), you have to navigate a mind-boggling labyrinth of privacy settings.

It has a bad odor to it. When I use Facebook, I fully expect that other people will be able to see what I’m doing. No problem — I would never use Facebook for sensitive business communications. But when I use Messenger, I expect it to be as private as a phone call.

I don’t expect my iPhone to suddenly start telling me, “Your dentist called Bank of America an hour ago, your wife just got off the phone with Isaiah Mustafa, and your son is dialing 1-900-HOT-DATES.” That’s essentially what Windows Live is doing, using Messenger and Hotmail.

I’m dismayed that Microsoft seems to take great liberties with personal privacy, and you should be, too. I’ll look at this again when Wave 4 is formally released; but in the meantime, I’m being extremely careful with my use of Hotmail and Messenger.

Have more info on this subject? Post your tip in the WS Columns forum.

Woody Leonhard‘s latest books — Windows 7 All-In-One For Dummies and Green Home Computing For Dummies — deliver the straight story in a way that won’t put you to sleep.
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Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.