Windows Recall demands an extraordinary level of trust that Microsoft hasn’t earned


The Recall feature as it currently exists in Windows 11 24H2 preview builds.
Enlarge / The Recall feature as it currently exists in Windows 11 24H2 preview builds.

Andrew Cunningham

Microsoft’s Windows 11 Copilot+ PCs come with quite a few new AI and machine learning-driven features, but the tentpole is Recall. Described by Microsoft as a comprehensive record of everything you do on your PC, the feature is pitched as a way to help users remember where they’ve been and to provide Windows extra contextual information that can help it better understand requests from and meet the needs of individual users.

This, as many users in infosec communities on social media immediately pointed out, sounds like a potential security nightmare. That’s doubly true because Microsoft says that by default, Recall’s screenshots take no pains to redact sensitive information, from usernames and passwords to health care information to NSFW site visits. By default, on a PC with 256GB of storage, Recall can store a couple dozen gigabytes of data across three months of PC usage, a huge amount of personal data.

The line between “potential security nightmare” and “actual security nightmare” is at least partly about the implementation, and Microsoft has been saying things that are at least superficially reassuring. Copilot+ PCs are required to have a fast neural processing unit (NPU) so that processing can be performed locally rather than sending data to the cloud; local snapshots are protected at rest by Windows’ disk encryption technologies, which are generally on by default if you’ve signed into a Microsoft account; neither Microsoft nor other users on the PC are supposed to be able to access any particular user’s Recall snapshots; and users can choose to exclude apps or (in most browsers) individual websites to exclude from Recall’s snapshots.

This all sounds good in theory, but some users are beginning to use Recall now that the Windows 11 24H2 update is available in preview form, and the actual implementation has serious problems.

“Fundamentally breaks the promise of security in Windows”

This is Recall, as seen on a PC running a preview build of Windows 11 24H2. It takes and saves periodic screenshots, which can then be searched for and viewed in various ways.
Enlarge / This is Recall, as seen on a PC running a preview build of Windows 11 24H2. It takes and saves periodic screenshots, which can then be searched for and viewed in various ways.

Andrew Cunningham

Security researcher Kevin Beaumont, first in a thread on Mastodon and later in a more detailed blog post, has written about some of the potential implementation issues after enabling Recall on an unsupported system (which is currently the only way to try Recall since Copilot+ PCs that officially support the feature won’t ship until later this month). We’ve also given this early version of Recall a try on a Windows Dev Kit 2023, which we’ve used for all our recent Windows-on-Arm testing, and we’ve independently verified Beaumont’s claims about how easy it is to find and view raw Recall data once you have access to a user’s PC.

To test Recall yourself, developer and Windows enthusiast Albacore has published a tool called AmperageKit that will enable it on Arm-based Windows PCs running Windows 11 24H2 build 26100.712 (the build currently available in the Windows Insider Release Preview channel). Other Windows 11 24H2 versions are missing the underlying code necessary to enable Recall.

The short version is this: In its current form, Recall takes screenshots and uses OCR to grab the information on your screen; it then writes the contents of windows plus records of different user interactions in a locally stored SQLite database to track your activity. Data is stored on a per-app basis, presumably to make it easier for Microsoft’s app-exclusion feature to work. Beaumont says “several days” of data amounted to a database around 90KB in size. In our usage, screenshots taken by Recall on a PC with a 2560×1440 screen come in at 500KB or 600KB apiece (Recall saves screenshots at your PC’s native resolution, minus the taskbar area).

Recall works locally thanks to Azure AI code that runs on your device, and it works without Internet connectivity and without a Microsoft account. Data is encrypted at rest, sort of, at least insofar as your entire drive is generally encrypted when your PC is either signed into a Microsoft account or has Bitlocker turned on. But in its current form, Beaumont says Recall has “gaps you can drive a plane through” that make it trivially easy to grab and scan through a user’s Recall database if you either (1) have local access to the machine and can log into any account (not just the account of the user whose database you’re trying to see), or (2) are using a PC infected with some kind of info-stealer virus that can quickly transfer the SQLite database to another system.



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