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Author Topic: Security  (Read 1781 times)

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« on: 11. July 2007., 22:32:13 »
If you distilled down all the forces driving the design goals for Windows Vista, their essence could be described in a single word: security. Many decisions that Microsoft has made regarding various aspects of Vista have been made for obscure security reasons. As you get to know Vista better, some of the changes make more sense when viewed through that prism. But at first blush, several changes and new functions are obviously about security.

Internet Explorer Security
Internet Explorer has long been a hackers' favorite target, and in Windows Vista, Microsoft has built in a variety of protections to help keep IE, as well as your computer, safe.

First and foremost is Protected Mode, which shields the operating system from actions taken by Internet Explorer or any Internet Explorer add-ins. So even if malware breaks Internet Explorer’s security features, it shouldn't be able to do harm to your PC, because Protected Mode in essence locks Internet Explorer inside a safe box. Protected Mode isn't available in IE 7 in Windows XP; it works only in the Windows Vista version.
Internet Explorer in Windows Vista also benefits from the same security features that are built into the Windows XP version. The antiphishing filter does an excellent job protecting against phishing attacks, and the browser has also cracked down on potentially dangerous ActiveX controls and dangerous add-ins. (See our in-depth review of Internet Explorer 7 for details about these and other improvements in IE7.)

Windows Firewall
Those who have been longing for a true firewall for Windows will be pleased to know that Windows Vista includes a two-way firewall. The firewall in Windows XP only blocked dangerous inbound connections but did not provide any protection for unwanted outbound connections. So if your PC was invaded by a Trojan or spyware, those programs would be allowed to make outbound connections unimpeded. Windows Vista changes that, and the Windows Firewall includes outbound protection as well.

As with Windows XP, you can customize how inbound protection works by opening and closing ports, blocking and unblocking programs and so on through Windows Firewall Settings, available via Control Panel > Security > Allow a Program through Windows Firewall.

But oddly, at first it appears that you can't do the same for outbound connections. In fact, you can, but you'll have to do a bit of digging to find out how. You need to run Windows Firewall with Advanced Security. To do it, at a command prompt, type wf.msc and press Enter.
Given that Windows Firewall now has outbound filtering, there's little reason for most people to need a third-party firewall such as ZoneAlarm.

Windows Defender
The Windows Defender antispyware built into Windows Vista is no different than the one available as a free download for Windows XP, or the one built into Windows Live OneCare. It's a solid, serviceable antispyware application that includes live protection as well as automated spyware scanning.

The best thing about Windows Defender is that it was purposely designed not to pop up frequently, requiring user decisions. The worst thing about Windows Defender is that compared to products like Webroot's Spy Sweeper or Safer Networking's Spybot Search & Destroy, it offers limited protection.

One of Defender's more useful features is its Software Explorer, which provides help beyond spyware. Software Explorer lets you see programs running on your PC in a variety of categories, including Startup Programs and Currently Running Programs. It provides in-depth information about each program, including its name, executable file, publisher, path, file size and more. You can enable, disable or remove any program.

Windows Defender doesn't give a whole lot of advice in helping you decide which programs you should let run -- but on the other hand, if Windows Defender allows a program to run, it considers the program safe. You can always do a Google search to track down any application about which you're suspicious, and Windows Defender gives you plenty of information about each app, so it should be easy to do a search.

What, No Antivirus Tool?
As with past versions of Windows, Windows Vista doesn't include any antivirus software. Why? One reason might be antitrust concerns, particularly in Europe. Including antivirus in the operating system could certainly be construed as anticompetitive, and could embroil Microsoft in lawsuits for years to come. In fact, Microsoft has been wrangling with security vendors who want access Security Center so that they can more easily integrate into it. We won't go into all the gory details, but the food fight will be with us for some time.

Another potential reason is that Microsoft just happens to sell an antivirus product of its own bundled into Windows Live OneCare. If antivirus was included in Windows Vista, there'd be little reason for anyone to buy OneCare.

What to do about antivirus software? You'll have to buy or download a third-party program. Not all antivirus software works with Vista yet, and it's not clear which will work and which won't, so this may be problematic for anyone upgrading to Windows Vista. Also not clear is whether the license you've bought for a Windows XP version will be able to be used for the Windows Vista version.

But some antivirus software does work. If you're looking for a very good free program for personal use, Avast! is a good choice -- it's lightweight and uses very few system resources.

Parental controls
If you're a parent, are worried about how your children use the computer and the Internet and believe that a software tool for blocking access is part of the answer to your worries, you'll be pleased with the new Parental Controls feature built into Windows Vista.
Microsoft has managed to give you exceedingly fine-grained control over all aspects of how the computer is used, from Internet access and games to the exact times and days the computer is being used. And it's managed to do that in a simple-to-use interface.

There are four sets of controls: for filtering Web use, controlling when a child can use the PC, controlling games based on a rating system, and allowing and blocking specific programs. Each control is relatively simple and intuitive; parents need not worry that they'll need their children to teach them to use the controls, which would certainly defeat the purpose of Parental Controls in the first place.
For parents who want to keep a virtual eye on their children, activity reports can be automatically generated and viewed. The reports include the top 10 Web sites visited, the top 10 Web sites blocked, applications used, games used, when each child logged on to the PC and more.

UAC and file permissions
Perhaps the most controversial security feature in Windows Vista is User Account Control (UAC), which seeks your confirmation before it will allow various programs or dialog boxes to open.

The purpose of UAC is to make Windows users -- as the last line of defense -- aware of potentially dangerous activities that are about to carried out on their computers. The potential threat is that a malware program (or possibly a determined hacker) could be carrying out a scripted set of steps that will lead to a negative event on your computer, such as the loss of data or damage to your Windows installation.

In a nutshell, the question UAC asks is: Did you initiate the process that's attempting to run? When the answer is yes, you click OK or Allow to permit the action. When the answer is no, your prudence in letting UAC block that action could save you from a very bad experience.
UAC is not smart in any way. It doesn't try to discern something that might actually be a threat. It just throws up a prompt about something that might conceivably be exploited. It also doesn't ever relax. You could click the System Control Panel (also called Advanced System Settings in some areas of Vista) 75 times in a row, and it would prompt you with the statement "Windows needs your permission to continue" every time. So basically, it adds an extra click to the process of accessing this tool.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, which has been used by other operating systems before. It's not a new idea, and it's not a bad idea. But the devil is in the details of how it's implemented. As a Johnny-come-relatively-lately to the security bandwagon, Microsoft has embraced security principles fervently. What that means is that, if there's even a small chance that opening a settings dialog box, starting up an applet, or running an installation program could present even a slight security risk, Windows Vista is going to prompt you with some sort of UAC dialog box asking for permission to proceed.

This is a short list of just a few of the processes that require confirmation to initiate:
Opening Disk Defragmenter, System Restore, Task Scheduler or Windows Easy Transfer
Adjusting font size, connecting to a Network Projector (opens two dialog boxes in succession) or accessing Remote settings
Opening these control panels: Add Hardware, BitLocker, Device Manager, iSCSI Initiator, Parental Controls, Advanced System Settings, System Protection or Remote Settings
Additionally, many processes that don't prompt you at launch, such as Windows Defender, Windows Firewall, Ease of Access, Internet Options and a long list of others, do require your permission for specific settings.

Taken one by one, most of the processes that are gated by UAC seem very reasonable. Microsoft rethought a great many restrictions that made little sense between Vista Beta 2 and RC1. But taken as a whole, UAC is going to seem like a burden to many users who are tired of Microsoft and other software makers protecting us from ourselves.

Proponents of UAC claim that after the first several days or weeks after Vista is first installed (or you receive it on a new PC), the experience of constantly being confronted with UAC dialogs slows down. But for some people, UAC numbness creeps in quickly. How long before they stop reading the prompts or considering what they mean and just click OK every time? It can quickly become muscle memory.

The average Vista user will have little idea about the rationale behind UAC prompts. To that person, UAC may seem scary at first but quickly became a petty annoyance. How long before people realize they can turn off UAC in the User Account Control Panel?

This is the worst problem about UAC. Has Microsoft overbalanced it, and turned it into something that will actually defeat its purpose? There's a very real possibility of that.

Finally, although file permissions problems related to UAC have been tweaked since RC2, people who install Vista in a dual-boot arrangement may find that some folders they created on their XP drives may not be accessible from Vista without complex file and folder security-permissions changes.

In particular, if you store user files (such as downloads, programs or system drivers) in user-created folders hanging off your root directory -- instead of placing them somewhere in the Windows-prescribed user folders, like Program Files or My Documents -- you could find that the operating system will prevent you from opening files or folders. In the very late prerelease version of Vista tested for this story, the first indication that Microsoft may have reduced this problem was apparent. Because it was a seemingly random problem in earlier builds, it's tough to say for sure. But hopefully, this problem has been rectified.
# Online Anti-Malware Scanners:,734.0.html

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« on: 11. July 2007., 22:32:13 »


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