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Whether you use a touch-first tablet, a traditional PC, or something in between, Windows 8.1 includes important security and privacy features you should know about. These range from built-in fingerprint reader support and anti-malware features to automatic device encryption and app permission settings.
Unlike traditional desktop apps, modern Windows 8 “Store apps” are sandboxed and don’t have access to your entire system. They have to ask for permission to access your location, webcam, microphone, and other sensitive data. Like on Apple’s iPad, you can configure many of these permissions and control what apps have access to.
To access these settings, swipe in from the right or press Windows Key + C to access the charms bar, select Settings, and select Change PC settings. Select the Privacy category. On the main pane, you’ll be able to prevent apps from accessing your name and account info, as well as disabling the advertising ID feature that lets apps serve more relevant advertising to you by tracking you across multiple apps.
The Location, Webcam, and Microphone categories allow you to view which apps have access to your hardware and revoke access, if you like. You can disable access to a hardware device for all apps system-wide or just specific apps. Some apps obviously won’t work properly if you disable access to specific hardware — you won’t be able to use Skype for video chats if you disable access to your webcam and microphone, for example.
Windows Defender Antivirus
Windows Defender is basically a rebranded version of Microsoft Security Essentials, Microsoft’s antivirus product. Windows Defender doesn’t score at the top of the antivirus test charts, but its inclusion is a huge improvement. Finally, all Windows PCs will have an antivirus installed on them. Windows Defender normally works in the background, so you don’t have to worry about it. You can open the Windows Defender application from the All Apps view and use the simple interface to manually perform scans, if you feel like it.
If you prefer another antivirus, no problem. Windows Defender will automatically disable itself when you install another antivirus product, so they won’t conflict and cause problems with your computer.
SmartScreen Download Scanning
SmartScreen is another security feature that attempts to protect Windows users from harmful software. Previously, it was only available in Internet Explorer. When you download a file in IE, it checks with Microsoft’s servers to see if other users have downloaded the file. If many other people have downloaded the file and it’s a known-good file — for example, if you’re downloading a popular program from a reputable website — it will automatically download with no errors.
If it’s a dangerous, known-bad file, you’ll see a scary warning. If it’s an unknown program that few people have downloaded and that could potentially be dangerous, you’ll see a caution message.
As of Windows 8, this is now integrated into the operating system. SmartScreen works when you download application files in any web browser or any other program. When you attempt to run a downloaded program, Windows will check with Microsoft’s servers. If it’s a known-bad or unknown program, you’ll see a warning.
This normally works fine, but you may see some SmartScreen warnings when you download safe software that few people use. If you’re confident the software is safe, you can click the button under More info to bypass the SmartScreen warning ad run the software anyway. You can disable SmartScreen from the Action Center in the Control Panel, but we don’t recommend it. It’s another layer of protection.
Device Encryption and BitLocker
Windows 8.1 automatically enables device encryption on all new devices with appropriate hardware if you log in with a Microsoft account. The recovery key is stored with your Microsoft account online, so you can recover it even if you forget your Microsoft account password.
To view whether you’re using Device encryption, open the PC settings app, tap PC and devices, and tap PC info. If you don’t see a Device encryption section on this page, your device doesn’t support Device encryption.
The Professional edition of Windows 8.1 still includes BitLocker, too. Open it by pressing the Windows key and typing BitLocker to search for BitLocker. BitLocker still allows you to enable encryption for your hard dive or removable USB drives (with BitLocker To Go) as you could on Windows 7 and Windows Vista. If you don’t have this control panel, you’re using the standard, core edition of Windows 8.1
Fingerprint Reader Support
Windows 8.1 has built-in support for fingerprint readers, so Windows tablets and laptops can try to compete with Apple’s new Touch ID hardware. If your device has a fingerprint reader, you won’t have to use your manufacturer’s terrible software anymore. It’s now nicely integrated into the operating system.
If you have a fingerprint reader, you can navigate to PC Settings > Accounts > Sign-in options. You’ll see the fingerprint reader appear as an option, and you can add your fingerprint to your Windows account and use it to authenticate and sign in.
If you’re using a Microsoft account to log into your Windows 8.1 system — and you probably are, because that’s the default — you should also follow these steps to secure your Microsoft account. Microsoft accounts are so closely integrated with Windows that the features Microsoft has added to help secure them are important for all Windows users, just as two-factor authentication is important for many other online services.
Image Credit: Dell Inc. on Flickr