Can Vista Save Enterprises from Themselves?

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2006-02-23 Print this article Print

Opinion: For years, Windows has provided ways for IT to administer systems securely. But until Vista it's been easier not to.

During the announcement of the enterprise Community Technology Preview of Windows Vista Feb. 22, I was struck when the Microsoft rep said that, according to his companys research, 80 percent of enterprise users run as administrator. I just couldnt believe thats true. Wednesday must be Obtuse Day here. I asked around, and I was the only one surprised. While users may be logging into the domain as restricted users, they are overwhelmingly being set up as administrators of their local systems.

There are a number of reasons why this is so common. There are some everyday, mundane tasks, like adding a printer or changing the system time, that require administrative privileges. (Windows Vista lowers the privilege requirements for some of these, such as changing power management settings or modifying a VPN connection, so that standard users can do them.)

You need administrative privileges to do things like install most software, and to update some. Normal users cant update ActiveX controls or write to the Program Files directory, so the easiest thing is to give them the rights they need.

Click here to read more about the latest Windows Vista CTP release.

But the biggest reason enterprises throw up their hands and give normal users administrative privileges is because they have to run applications that require it. And these apps require it for stupid reasons, like they write to the Windows directory or they write to the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE registry hive.

Microsofts distant history in this regard is bad, but its more recent history, basically since Bill Gates "Lets Give a Damn About Security from Now On" memo, has been on point, even if it hasnt gotten customers and developers to cooperate. For instance, you cant get the "Designed for Windows XP" logo unless you can run properly as a standard user.

I guess nobody cares about that particular logo because violation of those rules is widespread. Its not exactly an enterprise app, but Intuits QuickBooks was recently named by The SANS Institute as "the first inductee into the Application Security Hall of Shame." The program basically demands administrator privileges (or at least Power User, which isnt much more secure). So all QuickBooks users are that much more vulnerable to malware and cracking, and they have Intuit to thank for it.

Microsofts latest effort in this regard is a serious step forward: UAC (User Account Control) tries to require that all users run as standard users and allows administrative privileges to be applied to narrow circumstances, like that one stupid program. Using a trick originally developed for Terminal Server (one of my favorite products) when a program attempts to write, for example, to the Windows directory, it is given a temp version of that directory. Writes like this are logged by default.

You can use this information to try to fix the programs, or you can designate that those programs run with elevated privileges. And if a program run by an unprivileged user attempts to perform a privileged task, the user will be asked for the administrator password (Mac and Linux users probably have a feeling of deja vu right now).

Some tasks, like installing and updating software, may be addressable by UAC, but they should be managed by domain-based management software. Its not like this option is a new one for enterprises.

To read more about Vistas security features, click here.

The ultimate goal of enterprises using UAC should be to make it so that the user doesnt have administrator credentials at all, or at least that they arent allowed to use them unless the help desk explicitly tells them to. Many social engineering-based attacks will be thwarted, in it will be impossible to trick the user into running an unauthorized program.

UAC is less of a savior for home users, who expect to be able to install software. UAC should alert users to silent installs and programs disguised as documents, but if the user wants to install the fancy browser toolbar thats really adware, then they will provide their administrator password because it makes sense for them to do so.

Of course, thats the sort of social engineering that any operating system is subject to, and thats a lot of what Vista does: Put Windows default security on par with the competition, for the first time ever.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog. More from Larry Seltzer
Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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