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Configuring Windows Vista Security : Understanding User Account Control (part 1)

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Understanding Common Security Risks and Threats

In the area of computer security, it is often wise to know the methods of the “enemy.” That is, it’s important to understand ways in which malicious programs or people might be able to perform unwanted actions on your computer. Some of these actions might include the following:

  • Using system resources Malicious programs might use CPU, memory, disk, and network resources to perform their tasks. In one example, users’ computers are used to launch an attack on another site or computer without their knowledge. In those cases, users might notice that their computer appears to be working more slowly than before.

  • Tampering with critical system files or data In some cases, the data might simply be destroyed. In other cases, it might be transmitted to other computers. Regardless, these changes can cause data loss and instability of the operating system.

  • Attempting to obtain personal information such as credit card numbers, user names, and passwords Often, this data is then transmitted to a remote computer, where it might be used for actions such as identity theft.

  • Tracking system usage Software that is commonly referred to as spyware often runs in the background on a computer, unknown to users. It collects information such as Web sites that are visited and then reports this information back to the distributor of the software. Apart from violating security, this can lead to system slowdowns and instability.

  • Displaying unwanted advertisements It is a common practice for applications to include additional software that is installed with little or no warning to the user. The additional code can perform operations such as automatically loading content from Web sites.

Some of these programs might be designed with a specific purpose in mind (for example, collecting potentially useful personal financial data). In other cases, the programs might have no purpose other than to annoy the user. Regardless of the authors’ goals, it’s obvious that malware should be prevented from running on desktop computers.

Understanding the Security Goals of Windows Vista

A fundamental principle of managing security is giving users and applications a minimal set of security permissions. This ensures that they can perform the most common operations that they need to accomplish tasks, but it greatly limits the potential damage that a malicious program can cause. For example, users rarely (if ever) need to modify operating system files directly. By preventing them from performing this action, the operating system can avoid the mistaken or malicious deletion of critical components. By default, applications that a user launches inherit all of the permissions of that user. If a user can open a Microsoft Word document, type a letter, and then e-mail it, a program could easily perform the same actions automatically. Therefore, it’s important to place restrictions.

Microsoft had two primary goals when designing security for the Windows Vista operating system. The first was to ensure that users and applications were granted a minimal set of permissions for completing common operations. The other goal, however, was to ensure compatibility with earlier applications. In previous versions of Windows, it was very common for programs to assume that they had full access to the computers on which they were running. They could easily perform tasks such as reading and writing files from the file system and making modifications to the system registry. Because developers relied on these capabilities, it was often necessary for users to log on to their systems with accounts that had full administrative permissions. If the permissions were not available, the application might fail to run or might return errors to the user. Based on the two goals of security and compatibility, let’s look at some new architectural features in Windows Vista.

Real World

Anil Desai

There’s no doubt about it: things would be far simpler for everyone involved if security were not a concern. In the early days of desktop computing, users and programs expected to have full control of their computers. Accordingly, application developers designed their programs under the assumption that they would also have these permissions and rights. Users would be able to perform any action they required on their systems. Unfortunately, having these abilities also increases potential security risks.


It is very important to understand that maintaining complete end-to-end security requires a team effort. It has been said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. It’s not enough for a few users to follow the rules: all must do so. Application developers, home and business users, and Consumer Support Technicians must all exercise discipline to minimize security issues.

For example, from a network standpoint, having the world’s most sophisticated and powerful firewall software won’t prevent users from using their initials as their password. A malicious user might easily circumvent all of this protection simply by guessing the password. Similarly, you can easily disable the many security features in Windows Vista with just a few mouse clicks.

So how can you, as a Consumer Support Technician, do your part? Perhaps the most important aspect of ensuring security for the customers you support is to make sure that they understand the importance of features such as UAC. Users often don’t see the benefits of limiting what they can easily do on their systems. This can lead them to circumvent or disable the features altogether. When, on the other hand, they see the potential benefits of security, they are much more likely to use best practices. Overall, it’s your job to help lead the security team effort.

Understanding the UAC Process

In previous versions of Windows, it was most common for users to log on to their computers by using an account that had Administrator permissions. This meant that the user (and any program that he or she launched) would be able to perform any operation on the computer. This includes reading and writing to critical operating system files and accessing data stored anywhere on the system. In Windows Vista, it is recommended that users log on to the computer, using a limited set of permissions.

Microsoft designed the UAC feature of Windows Vista to allow users to log on to their computers using a standard user account. They can perform the majority of their tasks using a limited set of permissions. During the logon process, Windows Explorer (which provides the user interface for Windows Vista) automatically inherits the standard level of permissions. Additionally, any programs that are executed using Windows Explorer (for example, by double-clicking an application shortcut) also run with the standard set of user permissions. Many applications, including those that are included with the Windows Vista operating system itself, are designed to work properly in this way.

Other applications, especially those that were not specifically designed with the Windows Vista security settings in mind, often require additional permissions to run successfully. These types of programs are referred to as legacy applications. Additionally, actions such as installing new software, and making configuration changes to programs such as Windows Firewall, require more permissions than what is available to a standard user account. Windows Vista can automatically detect when an application is attempting to use more than standard user privileges.

Understanding Standard User Mode

When a user logs on to Windows Vista by using a standard user account, Windows Explorer and all other processes that are launched run with a minimal set of permissions. In this mode, UAC requires the user to provide credentials to the system whenever an application or operation requires elevated permissions. When an application or process requests access to more permissions, the user is prompted for approval. This process is known as application elevation because it allows Windows Vista to give a program a full set of permissions. Figure 1 shows a sample screen. After the credentials are provided and accepted, the program runs with elevated permissions. The user, however, still continues to have only a limited set of permissions.

Figure 1. Providing administrator credentials for application elevation


In a typical consumer environment, the user might already have knowledge of the user name and password of an Administrator account on the computer. By providing those details, he or she is implying that he or she wishes to allow the program to run in an elevated way. Other users of the computer who do not have these credentials will be unable to perform administrator-level actions.

Another way in which the standard user mode can be used is often called the “over the shoulder” method. In this case, a parent or supervisor might want most users to run under the standard user mode. Whenever there is a need to elevate privileges, this person can provide the necessary credentials. For example, a mother might want her child to log on to the computer as a standard user. Whenever the child needs to perform tasks such as changing system settings or installing new software, the mother must provide the necessary credentials.

Understanding Admin Approval Mode

In some cases, users might want to log on to the computer by using an Administrator account but still have the security benefits of running with minimal permissions. UAC provides this ability by using the Admin Approval Mode. The user account technically has full permissions on the system, but UAC limits which actions the user can perform. This effectively makes the account behave like a standard user account for most operations. Actions that require additional permissions can be performed, but the user must first approve them.

When an application requests elevated privileges, the default prompt Windows Vista shows to the user is one that asks the user to provide consent (see Figure 2). This method ensures that the user is aware when an application is attempting to run with elevated privileges. It can also help prevent situations in which malware applications attempt to modify the system. However, by default, it does not require the user to provide credentials for an Administrator account, because the current account already has this ability. Later in this lesson, you’ll see how you can change UAC settings to require credentials in Admin Approval Mode.

Figure 2. Providing consent for an application to run with elevated privileges


Additional Security Features

In addition to the UAC elevation prompts in Windows Vista, there are several other security-related enhancements that have been designed to increase safety and provide compatibility for earlier applications. In this section, you’ll learn about how they work.

File System and Registry Virtualization

Two important areas of security-related concerns are the Windows file system and the registry. The file system contains files ranging from operating system components to user data. In the past, applications were designed with the assumption that they would be able to access these files and settings freely. These earlier applications often fail to run properly when they cannot make those changes.

To prevent direct access to secure file system locations (such as the operating system and Program Files folders), Windows Vista uses a technique called virtualization. This method works by monitoring for when applications request direct access to the file system or registry. When this occurs, the operating system automatically redirects the requests to the appropriate location. For example, if a previous program is attempting to write a configuration file to the Program Files folder, Windows Vista automatically intercepts that request and writes the file to a subfolder of the User profile. This is a much safer operation, and it still enables the application to run without modifications.

Note: Temporary compatibility measures

Microsoft designed file system and registry virtualization technology primarily for compatibility with the vast library of earlier applications that were written for previous versions of Windows. Over time, many applications will be designed and updated to use safer models for file and registry access. Therefore, virtualization is being used as a temporary measure to bridge the gap until that happens. It is not intended to be used as a long-term compatibility solution.


Understanding the Secure Desktop

One method by which malicious applications might attempt to collect sensitive information from the user is by emulating a standard application or window. This is particularly true of the UAC elevation prompt. Users might be prompted for credentials by an unauthorized application that appears to be a standard Windows dialog box. The program collects user names and passwords and then might use this information to compromise security.

To prevent this problem, Windows Vista displays elevation prompts, using a secure desktop. The secure desktop automatically dims the desktop background and prevents all applications from launching any new prompts or windows until the user makes a decision related to the UAC elevation prompt. In this way, the user can be assured that the UAC prompt is coming from the Windows Vista operating system itself.

Identifying Tasks That Require Privilege Elevation

Although you can perform the majority of common tasks in Windows Vista as a standard user, there are various functions that require elevated privileges. Built-in operating system tools and applications use a shield icon next to the appropriate button or link to indicate that privilege elevation is required (see Figure 3). This helps users understand when they are performing potentially unsafe actions.

Figure 3. Tasks that require administrator permissions are shown with a shield icon

Responding to Elevation Prompts

A common source of security-related and configuration-related issues occurs when users install unknown applications. In some cases, this might be done deliberately, but in other cases, users might be tricked into running a setup program without knowing it. UAC automatically attempts to verify whether an application is a known program or potentially unsafe. Figure 4 shows an example of the approval dialog box that is presented to users.

Figure 4. A prompt for an unknown application


In addition to providing the name of the program and its publisher (if available), the details include the full path to the application. This can help users determine whether they really want to install the program. Options include allowing or disallowing the program to run.

Running Programs with Elevated Privileges

In some cases, users always want to run a particular program using Administrator permissions. For example, a customer might know that her former accounting software requires elevated permissions, and she does not want a prompt to appear automatically every time she launches the application. Run This Program As An Administrator offers the option to run a program always as an administrator. You can configure this setting on the Compatibility tab of a program or shortcut (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Using Compatibility tab settings to run a program as an administrator


In some cases, the Run This Program As An Administrator check box might be disabled. For example, the application might be a built-in program that is included with Windows Vista and might not require elevated credentials. In those cases, the check box is disabled.

Another way to launch a program with elevated permissions is to right-click a program or shortcut and select Run As Administrator. This setting launches the application with Administrator permissions. Unless UAC is disabled, the user is prompted to provide consent or credentials.

Understanding Installer Detection

Perhaps one of the most common tasks that requires elevated privileges is the process of installing new software. Setup programs and installers often need to write directly to secure file system locations (such as the Program Files folder) and make changes to the registry.

Windows Vista uses methods to identify installation programs automatically and automatically prompts for approval of elevation when the application is run. This helps prevent common error messages and issues that users encounter when attempting to install programs, using standard user permissions.

Note: Choosing new applications

Whenever possible, recommend that customers select software that includes the Certified for Windows Vista logo. This helps ensure that the product has been designed for compatibility with UAC and other security features.

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