User Account Control and Security

While Windows XP went a long way towards correcting some of the biggest problems in previous versions of Windows, it's also had some significant problems where its age has not been good to it. Paramount among these is the overall security of Windows, a two-fold problem involving some arguably poor programming practices at Microsoft, and an operating system that nearly expects all users to be full administrators. Microsoft has made some effort to correct this in Widows XP, especially with Service Pack 2 which added support for the no-execute security bit and a dramatically improved firewall, but there's only so much Microsoft can do without completely overhauling the operating system.

With Vista of course, now that Microsoft has the chance to do so, they have made some significant changes to the underpinnings of Vista in order to better lockdown the operating system; specifically, with a feature called User Account Control. The basic premise behind UAC is that the previous way of running everything as an Administrator was wrong, and by doing so it not only allowed applications to make system-wide changes when they shouldn't, but it also meant that compromised applications could be used as a vector to attack the system. As a result, even an administrator isn't really an administrator under Vista.

The most noticeable change as a result of this is that Vista will attempt to run most programs using standard permissions, effectively turning administrators into standard users. For many programs, especially programs included in Vista, this won't be a problem, and they'll be able to run fine with standard permissions. Windows Media Player 11 is one such example of a program that had problems under XP that has been fixed for Vista.

For a second class of programs, those that think they need admin permissions but really do not, Microsoft has engineered what amounts to a partial sandbox for those applications, so that when they attempt to make changes in global locations (the Windows directory, certain registry locations, etc.), they'll instead be secretly redirected to locations inside of the user's home folder and the user's local branch of the registry, allowing these programs to make the file and registry changes they want without having true access to the global operating system. A number of programs that haven't been modified to be completely compliant with standard permissions can be made to work fine under this still-protected mode.

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Last, but not least, there are certain programs and actions that simply require administrator privileges, such as deletions outside the user's home folder and most control panel changes. Here, Vista is implementing a very Unix-like system of getting the user's permission, rather than implicitly granting the user permission to undertake the action based on their administrator credentials. Vista will bring up a secure dialog box that informs the user of the action that is to be taken, and gives them the option to either approve or deny it (non-admin users will need to provide an admin account first).

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It's this last change that will likely be most jarring for users coming from XP, as it turns out there are a number of actions Windows undertakes right now that are administrator level and are based on implicit permission. At this point, UAC will ask for confirmation a lot; entirely too much in fact (we ended up turning off UAC at one point). We've had to deal with other quirks with UAC as well, for example it's now harder to terminate an administrator-privileged program that's run amok (you have to elevate your permissions in the task manager to do it). There's also the ultimate issue of working out which programs need to be run in administrator mode; if a program isn't working, is it because it's incompatible with Vista, or because it needs administrator powers?

Microsoft is aware of this, and is working on streamlining the process for the release version of Vista, so the obtrusions should not be as bad as with the current beta. Nevertheless, it puts users in the odd position of picking an OS mode that either is secure because it makes it much harder for malware to infect the system at the cost of making every action potentially less convenient, or a more liberal system that gives up the security benefits. This is an especially odd position for enthusiasts who tend to have the skills to prevent a malware infection in the first place; not only is UAC not as helpful for them, but as one of the biggest new features in Vista, is it worth buying Vista if you're not going to use UAC?

Ultimately, UAC is a huge part of the new security systems within Vista, and even if it isn't perfectly streamlined by release, it will be much better for virtually all users to have it enabled and slightly bothered by it, rather than being in the open. If too many users end up turning off UAC, it can create a chicken/egg situation where application developers will not bother to make their programs work without administrative powers (just like today), and where Vista is left with much of the same security mess that XP has today as the other security systems aren't enough to completely secure Vista on their own. Everyone is going to find it's a significant change compared to the easy-going XP, but it's without a doubt this kind of overhaul is going to be for the best: what you don't know can hurt you.

It's also worth mentioning that IE7+ (the Vista version of IE7) will be tied into UAC. Its own sandbox mode, which is intended to keep ActiveX controls from running amok, requires UAC to be active to be effective; otherwise it will only have similar protections to what IE6 offers today. However, given the immense use of IE6 right now as a vector of attack for spyware, on paper it seems like these changes should significantly strengthen IE7 and Windows as a whole.

Besides UAC, Microsoft has made a couple other significant additions to Windows, largely as a tool of last resort, since the ultimate power to install spyware lies with the users; some will still continue to run malicious applications with administrative privileges, and will need tools to deal with that. The Windows firewall has been upgraded to a full-service product that is capable of blocking both inbound and now outbound connections, which provides an additional method of warning users that they have malicious applications attempting to get out to the internet, and a way of containing them until removal. Microsoft Anti-Spyware has also been integrated into Vista, given the new name Windows Defender. Defender has been given a significant upgrade from the previous incarnation as MAS, and now is a real-time scanning application that on top of removing spyware can monitor IE downloads for known spyware and warn users of suspicious user-level changes to programs like IE.

Lastly, Microsoft has implemented a range of parental control features intended to better help parents control their kids' activities, extending some of the previous business-class control features of Windows. On top of the already limited abilities of standard user accounts, new control features includes the ability to lock down computer usage to certain times, and Microsoft has indicated they may expand this in the future to specific applications at specific times. Other features are the ability to outright block specific programs and websites, and to monitor certain activities enacted by controlled accounts (with special attention to internet activity, instant messenger usage, email, and time spent playing games).

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  • shamgar03 - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    "3) final verdict? same as it ever was -- i'll be running vista for games and linux for programming. and since i've recently been bitten by the switch bug, os x for everything else."

    Ditto
    Reply
  • darkdemyze - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    Personally I'm excited to see where Vista is going. But I still myself in the same position as stated above ^ Reply
  • CSMR - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    What has OS got to do with programming? Reply
  • Pirks - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    quote:

    What has OS got to do with programming?
    The guy's obviously coding some Linux stuff - do you want him to code stuff in cygwin on Vista? I don't think he's THIS kind of pervert, now is he? :))
    Reply
  • fikimiki - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    AMD will replace Intel, Linux is going to replace Windows.
    Microsoft is close to death, Bill is gone, Ballmer is crazy.
    They are going to make this system usable with SP3 working on Athlon64 16000+ (which is just 4x4000) acting as a fast turtle....
    Reply
  • Pirks - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    quote:

    Linux is going to replace Windows
    and Mesa 3D is going to replace DX10 - woohoo man keep this stuff coming, you're doin' great :))
    Reply
  • stash - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    lol close to death, and yet they somehow find a way to ring up a billion (with a B) dollars in profit every single MONTH. Reply
  • Xenoid - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    BEWARE THE MAN WITH THE TINFOIL HAT

    THE WORLD IS ENDING!
    Reply
  • darkdemyze - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    lol gg.

    I think some people need to get a grip..
    Reply
  • sprockkets - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    1. Nice fade into the desktop.
    2. I'm sure they'll make new sounds and music, otherwise, it sadly is a new UI with and old annoying XP theme.
    3. Still can't use anything other than .wav for sounds? Why?
    4. Everything is all over the place, yet the classics are still there if you need it.
    5. Finally, an all GUI installer. Welcome to the rest of the world haha.
    6. Instead of asking for permission all the time, why not allow the control panel to open, then ask, then do not ask again when using anything in it?
    7. Like mentioned, why make it so hard to hide the turn off button? Stupid.
    8. It will take getting used to. Might as well switch to a Mac or even Linux, because you will be spending effort to get used to the differences. "Where is the start menu? No display properties? OK, it is personalize. Where did all the usual menus go? "
    9. Funny, doing a file download in IE7 shows a nice progress bar, with the old as hell earth graphic with the flying piece of paper into the folder with the little red crash mark. Couldn't think of anything to replace it, or feeling nostolgic?
    10. Major annoyances gone with fresh new ones.
    11. Usual Microsoft behavior: Change for the sake of change (that damn power button!)

    Other thoughts: Yeah, OSX officially runs on x86 hardware, as long as it has an Apple logo on it. We did it to not have to worry about drivers and such. Yeah, as if you don't both have the same Intel chipset to support.
    Sometimes in Xp you cannot burn unless you are an Admin. I couldn't even run Asus Probe for whatever reason, and all it does is check for temps and such.
    Is Expose the same as the new compiz and XGL?
    Reply

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