Contributor:
Russell Smith
November 23rd, 2011

Who’s in Charge of User Account Control?

Microsoft’s Security Intelligence Report (SIR) v10, published in May this year, revealed figures that show Windows 7 is the company’s most secure operating system, reporting that the OS suffered fewer security incidents per 1000 computers than any other supported version of Windows in 2010. Windows 7 64-bit edition had 2.5 infections per 1000 computers, with 32-bit Windows 7 coming in at 3.8. This compared to 15.9 infections for Windows XP SP3 and 19.3 for XP SP2.

64-bit Windows 7 fares better than its 32-bit counterpart in part due to the inclusion of kernel patch protection, a technology only available in 64-bit Windows 7 that protects the kernel from unauthorized changes. Windows 7 is less likely to be infected overall because of User Account Control (UAC), an umbrella term for a set of technologies that make the OS easier to work with as a standard user or specially protected administrator account (Protected Administrator).

The results reported in SIR v10 for Windows 7 would have been even better if more home users didn’t disable UAC, which is likely what many tech-savvy home and business users do considering the number of articles on the Internet about the evils of UAC and how to turn it off; and hence goes the old adage that people don’t always know what’s good for them. If your users currently run as protected administrators on Windows 7, configure UAC in Group Policy to make it a little harder for them to disable UAC – though it’s worth bearing in mind that if a user has admin rights, Group Policy settings can be circumvented with enough will.

While UAC has some benefits in enterprise computing, it is a user-driven technology. UAC elevation prompts require users to give consent, or provide an admin username and password, to perform administrative tasks, resulting in decisions being made by unqualified staff that affect the integrity and security of the OS.

UAC Protected Administrator accounts provide a lot of flexibility, with a limited degree of security, that wasn’t possible in Windows XP. Once you move to standard user accounts in Windows 7, users can no longer elevate privileges; and all tasks, anticipated or otherwise, must be made to work as a standard user, or IT will have to intervene and provide administrator credentials.

Predicting users’ every move and requirement isn’t possible, so if it’s not acceptable to restrict the computing experience with a standard user account, you’ll either need to leave the default user-driven UAC experience in place or deploy Avecto’s enterprise rights management solution.

As well as the ability to assign privileges to individual applications and tasks, Avecto’s software can be configured to allow users to run any process with administrative privileges. UAC prompts can be replaced with custom corporate messages and users can be prompted to provide a valid reason before elevation. An audit trail of privilege elevation events allows administrators to keep track of how privileges are used. Avecto helps companies strike the right balance between the flexibility of user-driven UAC and policy-based IT controls, making Windows 7 more secure and mitigating unnecessary risks.

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