Why Microsoft wants to take screenshots of your laptop every few seconds

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speaks during a showcase event of the company's AI assistant, Copilot, ahead of the annual Build developer conference at Microsoft headquarters, Monday, May 20, 2024, in Redmond, Wash. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speaks during a showcase event of the company's AI assistant, Copilot (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

A flagship feature coming to Microsoft’s new artificial intelligence-powered Copilot+ PCs has sparked privacy concerns – with an AI assistant that constantly takes screenshots of what people are doing.

The idea of the ‘recall’ feature is that it works like a super-powered browsing history for the whole device, allowing users to search and retrieve info on anything from one place. The recall feature tracks every action performed on the laptop from voice chats to web browsing, and creates a detailed history stored on the device. Users can then easily search this history to find what they were working on.

But the recall service has sparked privacy fears, with Elon Musk comparing it to the dystopian sci-fi series Black Mirror and the UK’s Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) vowing to investigate the feature.

The ICO said:"We are making enquiries with Microsoft to understand the safeguards in place to protect user privacy."

Yahoo News spoke to Simon Pardo, director of technology specialists Computer Care, about what the new feature will mean for British users.

Recall is a feature on new, powerful Microsoft PCs called Copilot+ PCs, which offer advanced AI features built in.

The ability to crunch AI data directly on the computer lets it include a feature called Recall. This tracks everything done on the computer, from web browsing to voice chats, creating a history stored on the computer.

An exploded view of new Microsoft Surface Laptops are seen during a showcase event of the company's AI assistant, Copilot, ahead of the annual Build developer conference at Microsoft headquarters Monday, May 20, 2024, in Redmond, Wash. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)
Recall appears on new Microsoft machines including Surface laptops (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

Users can search Recall when they need to remember something they did, even months later.

Pardo said: "Copilot+ Recall takes screenshots of a user’s computer activity and analyses them with AI to let users search through their past activities, including files, photos, emails and browsing history.

“The idea is to provide a sort of photographic memory that helps users quickly find and recall information they've previously looked at.”

Social media users and privacy experts have voiced fears that such data collection could lead to problems for users.

“The Recall function is a concerning development, particularly from a security standpoint. By compiling a user’s complete digital history across Microsoft services it creates a single point of failure that could be catastrophic for businesses," said Pardo.

“Consolidating all these snapshots into one location creates a high-value target for attackers, potentially exposing a vast amount of sensitive information if breached.

“The feature also raises significant privacy concerns, with the potential to intrude on every area of the user’s life. Taking snapshots every few seconds is excessive.

“Others have questioned how Microsoft might use this data in the future, such as for targeted advertising or for training AI models. The whole system could have a chilling effect on how people use their computers in the knowledge that everything is being recorded.”

Microsoft has emphasised that Recall will be optional, and that users can have control over what content CoPilot+ PCs will save.

Microsoft says that the app exists to provide users with a ‘photographic’ memory of everything that has happened on their computers.

Microsoft says in a blog post, Recall doesn't record audio or save continuous video. "You're always in control of what's saved as a snapshot. You can disable saving snapshots, pause temporarily, filter applications, and delete your snapshots at any time. To help maintain your privacy, Recall processes your content locally on the Copilot+ PC and securely stores it on your device."

Britain’s ICO has said that it is speaking to Microsoft to ensure that there are privacy safeguards built into the software.

The ICO said that tech companies must ‘rigorously assess and mitigate risks to peoples' rights and freedoms’.

Pardo said: "Microsoft may need to provide more robust safeguards and opt-out options to ensure compliance and user trust.

“Microsoft will need to ensure that Recall complies with data protection regulations like the UK's Data Protection Act and the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

“The UK's Information Commissioner's Office is already making inquiries to assess the product's compliance and safeguards.

“There’s also the question of how consent works for web meetings and GDPR-compliant info? Will people be notified that they will be screenshot during a meeting?”

“The technology is still in development, so it's crucial for Microsoft to engage with regulators, privacy advocates, and users to get it right. Ultimately, the success of Copilot+ Recall will depend on Microsoft's ability to provide a product that respects user privacy while delivering the promised benefits.”