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The Least Risk Windows 7 Desktop

Contributor:
Mark Austin
Date published
1/3/2011 10:11:02 PM
As we begin 2011 this will be the year that many companies will look to move from pilot to production with Windows 7. The migration to Windows 7 is an ideal opportunity to assess the security posture of the corporate desktop.



Windows 7 includes a number of security enhancements to help secure the desktop, including User Account Control (UAC) and AppLocker. I have posted about both of these technologies in the past, and although both are welcome additions to Windows 7, they can fall short when striving to deploy the least risk Windows 7 desktop.

If you are seriously considering UAC then you should change the default configuration to always prompt. The downside is that users will always be prompted when an application requires elevation, but the security risks associated with leaving UAC at its default setting in Windows 7 have been well documented. Regardless of the configuration setting of UAC, you will still be surrendering control of the desktop to the end user, because UAC requires the user to either log on with local admin rights or to have access to an account with local admin rights.

In order to create the least risk Windows 7 desktop users should log on with a standard user account and not have access to an account with local admin rights. If a user requires access to applications that require local admin rights then a solution like Defendpoint will provide you with the granularity to assign these rights directly to the applications that require them, avoiding the need to give up complete control of the desktop to the user.

In addition to ensuring users log on to their desktop with a standard user account there are still more steps that should be taken to create the least risk Windows 7 desktop. Many of these steps may be obvious, but are still worth a mention, such as anti-virus protection at the endpoint and the use of Group Policy to harden many elements of the desktop configuration.

For those that are truly serious about locking down the desktop there is one last step that can be taken, which is application whitelisting. Many organizations are hesitant to adopt this approach, as there is a fear that the amount of time to configure and maintain such a solution outweighs its benefits. This is not necessarily the case and depends on the approach you take to application whitelisting. If you take a purist approach and build up a database of hashes for every application then there is no doubting that the solution can become time consuming and costly to maintain, but there are more pragmatic approaches to application whitelisting that can provide the same security benefits with far less ongoing maintenance.

AppLocker is available with Windows 7 (assuming you are using the Ultimate or Enterprise editions), which provides a Group Policy based application whitelisting solution. I have written about the pros and cons of this solution in a previous post, but I strongly recommend that you assess its capabilities, as it may be adequate for your environment, and it’s a big improvement over its predecessor, Software Restriction Policies.

If, however, you feel that AppLocker lacks the flexibility and control that you require then Defendoint's application control capabilities provide a number of benefits over and above AppLocker, including the option of being either user or computer centric, whereas AppLocker is computer centric. The ability to block an application or simply warn and audit, enables Defendpoint to handle more demanding scenarios. With broader application support, corporate end user messaging, a more flexible rules base, and the ability to deal with privileged applications, including software installers, Defendpoint is the ideal solution if you are looking to implement the least risk Windows 7 desktop.