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Using Windows Security Center (part 1) - Overview of Windows Security Center & Configuring Windows Firewall

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4/11/2011 7:04:25 PM

Overview of Windows Security Center

Windows Security Center is an application that is included with all of the consumer-based editions of Windows Vista. Windows Vista includes numerous security-related features and settings. To get an overview of the available options, you can open Control Panel and click Security. Figure 1 shows the default display.

Figure 1. Viewing security-related configuration options in Control Panel

The first available link provides access to Security Center. Figure 2 shows the basic user interface of the Windows Security Center application.

Figure 2. Using Windows Security Center

Microsoft designed Windows Security Center to provide you with an overview of the various different security configuration features and to provide a quick method of detecting any potential problems. The default display provides information related to the following four different types of security features:

  • Firewall

  • Automatic updating

  • Malware protection

  • Other security settings

The color of each section provides you with an overview of the status of each of these areas. Green indicates the current settings are optimal from a security standpoint and that this feature or setting is correctly configured based on recommendations. Yellow indicates that there is a potential issue with the configuration of current security settings or that the security level could not be determined. Finally, red indicates that one or more configuration settings might not be configured according to security recommendations.

Understanding Security Details

Initially, all of the Windows Security Center sections are displayed in a collapsed view. This allows you to get an overview about the overall status of security easily. However, you can also expand each section by clicking the title of the item or the arrow on the right side of the bar. When expanded, each section provides additional details related to the item’s status. This is especially useful for items that are colored yellow or red, indicating that there is a potential configuration setting or feature that could be improperly configured.

Note: Security in previous versions of Windows

Microsoft first introduced the Security Center feature to the Microsoft Windows platform in Windows XP Service Pack 2. If you’re supporting users who are running this version of Windows, you will find several of the features and settings to be similar to those of Windows Vista. It is still important to keep in mind that Windows Vista includes numerous features and additions that make it more secure than earlier versions of the Windows platform.

Changing Windows Security Alerts Settings

In cases in which the configuration of security-related applications and settings is not set based on recommendations, Windows Vista can automatically alert users about the issue by displaying an icon or notification in the system tray. The icon, called Windows Security Alerts, provides a shield icon with explanatory text about the issue. You can configure the exact behavior of Windows Security Alerts by clicking Change The Way Security Center Alerts Me in Windows Security Center. Figure 3 shows the available options.

Figure 3. Viewing notification options for Windows Security Center

The options include the following:

  • Yes, Notify Me And Display The Icon (Recommended)

  • Don’t Notify Me, But Display The Icon

  • Don’t Notify Me And Don’t Display The Icon (Not Recommended)

The default and recommended option is to display the notification and the icon. This setting is useful because it helps ensure that users are notified whenever there is a problem related to configuration settings. If users want more information about the problem, they can click the notification. They can also launch Windows Security Center by right-clicking the shield icon in the system tray and then choosing Security Center from the shortcut menu. These features ensure that users are aware of their security status even when they do not manually open Windows Security Center.

Now that you have a basic idea of the purpose of Windows Security Center, you’ll look at each of the major areas in more detail.

Configuring Windows Firewall

From a usability standpoint, it’s often helpful to enable computers to communicate with each other without any restrictions. If you can trust all of the computers and users in the environment, this will allow for the easy flow of information. In many environments, however, security risks require limited network connectivity. The goal is to enable authorized communications and keep unwanted network traffic out.

A firewall is designed to provide a logical layer of protection between computers in a networked environment. For example, home users might want their home computers to communicate with each other but want to prevent users on the Internet from accessing their computers directly. Microsoft designed Windows Firewall to restrict inbound and outbound traffic based on a series of configurable rules. The goal is to ensure that only certain types of applications and services are able to connect to the computers.

Understanding Inbound Filtering

Filtering inbound traffic can be very useful in preventing many kinds of common network-based attacks. Especially when computers are directly connected to the Internet, it’s common for other computers and malicious users to scan for computers that are not properly protected and try to access them.

For example, if an application such as a Web server can be directly accessed from another computer, it’s possible for malicious users to exploit known vulnerabilities in the product to gain access to the system. A firewall can prevent inbound access to the Web server at the network layer, thereby avoiding these potential problems. It does this by blocking all traffic that is inbound to the computer. In some cases, applications or services might need to access the computer for legitimate purposes. In these cases, you can create exceptions for known applications.

Understanding Outbound Filtering

Outbound filtering limits network access for applications and services that are running on the local computer. For security reasons, not all outbound Internet access should be allowed. A common method of compromising security is to have unwanted applications connect to the Internet or to other computers. In some cases, these applications might be used to download unwanted advertisements and directly display them on the screen. More serious problems include collecting data and password information from the local computer and transmitting it to another computer on the Internet.

In some cases, outbound access is required. For example, applications such as Web browsers and antivirus scanners might need to connect to the Internet regularly to obtain data. Features of Windows Vista can benefit greatly from having access to the Internet. The standard approach to meeting these requirements is to provide a list of exceptions in the outbound firewall configuration. These settings define which applications and services are able to communicate across the firewall.

Managing Firewall Settings

There are two main management methods for the configuration of Windows Firewall. You can find both by opening Firewall from the Start menu or by accessing Security in Control Panel and then clicking Windows Firewall. The default Windows Firewall window shows a simplified display of overall firewall settings. It provides details related to the current status of Windows Firewall (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Viewing an overview of the status of Windows Firewall

Users can click Change Settings to make modifications to the current configuration of Windows Firewall. The General tab of the Windows Firewall dialog box (shown in Figure 5) provides a master setting that determines whether the firewall is enabled.

Figure 5. Viewing the General tab settings for Windows Firewall

It is strongly recommended that you configure the firewall to On. When you choose this option, the Block All Incoming Connections check box is available. Selecting this check box prevents other computers from accessing any resources on the local computer, regardless of the configuration settings in other tools and applications. Therefore, this option is most useful when running in insecure environments such as a public network.

Users who want to be able to set up a home network to share media and other files will likely want to leave the check box cleared. The last option is to disable Windows Firewall completely. In most cases, use this setting only for temporary troubleshooting because disabling the firewall can leave the system open to numerous types of network attacks.

The Exceptions tab includes a list of all of the different types of applications that are allowed to communicate through Windows Firewall (see Figure 6). Because many network-enabled and Internet-enabled applications require this access, users can specify which applications are allowed to connect. By default, the Windows Firewall list includes a default set of allowed outbound connection options. These settings allow commonly used applications to communicate with other networks.

Figure 6. Viewing Exceptions tab settings for Windows Firewall

When you install new applications or enable new operating system features, Windows Vista might prompt you to approve automatic changes to the firewall configuration. Regardless of your choice, you’ll be able see which programs are able to access remote networks, such as the Internet, by using the Exceptions tab. By limiting the list to only known applications, you can prevent malware and other programs from automatically connecting to the Internet or to other computers.

Finally, the Advanced tab enables users to configure which network connections use the Windows Firewall. In most cases, it’s best to leave the firewall settings on for all connections. In some cases, however, it might be necessary to disable Windows Firewall. For example, some users might connect to their work networks from home. If their work network already has adequate security software and settings, it might be preferable to turn off the firewall for that particular connection.

The primary goal of the basic Windows Firewall tool is to provide a quick and easy way for users to modify the most common settings. The Windows Vista firewall also has many additional features and functions that you can use to manage better which types of connections are permitted. You can access these additional settings by launching the Windows Firewall With Advanced Security console. (You can launch this console from the Start menu or through Administrative Tools). Figure 7 shows the default types of settings that are available.

Figure 7. Using the Windows Firewall With Advanced Security console

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