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Windows Server 2012 : Software and User Account Control Administration (part 2) - Mastering User Account Control - Elevation, prompts, and the secure desktop

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Mastering User Account Control

User Account Control seeks to improve usability while at the same time enhancing security by controlling how standard user and administrator user accounts are used. User Account Control does this by limiting the scope of administrator-level access privileges and requiring all applications to run in a specific user mode. In this way, UAC prevents users from making inadvertent changes to system settings and locks down the computer to prevent unauthorized applications from installing or performing malicious actions.

Elevation, prompts, and the secure desktop

Unlike Windows XP and early releases of Windows, current releases of Windows make it easy to determine which tasks standard users can perform and which tasks administrators can perform. You might have noticed the multicolored shield icon next to certain options in windows, wizards, and dialog boxes. This is the Permissions icon. It indicates that the related option requires administrator permissions to run. That doesn’t mean you’ll see a prompt, though. The way the prompt works depends on the following:

  • Whether UAC allows changing Windows settings without prompting

  • Whether the computer is a member of a workgroup or a domain

  • Whether you are logged on as a standard user or an administrator

Note

UAC is disabled in Server Core installations. With other Windows Server installations, the best way to configure the UAC prompt is to use Group Policy settings. In Control Panel, tap or click System And Security. Under the Action Center heading, tap or click Change User Account Control Settings. On the User Account Control Settings page, use the slider to choose when to be notified about changes to the computer.

By default, when you are logged on to a computer as a standard user, you see a User Account Control (UAC) prompt when programs try to make changes to the computer that require administrator permissions and when programs try to change Windows settings. In a workgroup, the prompt shows the accounts of administrators. If you tap or click an account, you must then enter the password for that account and then tap or click Yes.

In a domain, as shown in Figure 1, the prompt shows the logon domain and provides user name and password boxes. To proceed, you must enter the name of an administrator account, type the account’s password, and then tap or click Yes. The task or application will then run with administrator permissions.

User Account Control requires a password to run certain applications when the user is not on an administrator account.
Figure 1. User Account Control requires a password to run certain applications when the user is not on an administrator account.

Note

The first screen capture shows the UAC prompt without details. The second screen capture shows the UAC prompt with details.

Whether the computer is in a workgroup or domain, the prompt shows the name of the program requesting elevation, the publisher of that program, and the file origin. If you have any question about the authenticity of the request, tap or click Show Details. You’ll then see the program location, which shows the full path to the program’s executable. For verified publishers, display their verification certificate by clicking the link provided.

The prompt works differently when you are logged on with an administrator account. Here, it doesn’t matter whether the computer is in a workgroup or a domain and the prompt doesn’t require an account selection or a password. Instead, your current credentials are used and you are simply prompted to confirm that you want to allow the task or program to make changes to the computer. If you click Yes, the task or application will then run with administrator permissions. (See Figure 2.)

User Account Control prompts users when they are already logged on to an administrator account.
Figure 2. User Account Control prompts users when they are already logged on to an administrator account.

The process of getting approval prior to running an application in administrator mode and prior to performing actions that change systemwide settings is known as elevation. Elevation enhances security by reducing the exposure and attack surface of the operating system. It does this by providing notification when you are about to perform an action that could affect system settings, such as installing an application, and it eliminates the ability of malicious programs to invoke administrator privileges without your knowledge and consent.

Prior to the elevation and display of the User Account Control (UAC) prompt, Windows Server performs several background tasks. The key task you need to know about is that Windows Server switches to a secure, isolated desktop prior to displaying the prompt. The purpose of switching to the secure desktop is to prevent other processes or applications from providing the required permissions or consent. All other running programs and processes continue to run on the interactive user desktop, and only the prompt itself runs on the secure desktop.

Elevation, prompts, and the secure desktop are aspects of User Account Control that affect you the most. Although they seem restrictive at first, these features prevent users from making inadvertent changes to system settings and they lock down the computer to prevent unauthorized applications from installing or performing malicious actions.

The key component of UAC that determines whether and how administrators are prompted is Admin Approval Mode. By default, all administrators, except the built-in local administrator account, run in and are subject to Admin Approval Mode. Because they are running in and subject to Admin Approval Mode, all administrators, except the built-in local administrator account, see the elevation prompt whenever they run administrator applications.

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