User Privileges, Malware and the Sony Rootkit Debacle

Opinion: A little postmortem analysis teaches a lesson about the security limitations we can expect from Windows when it tightens up user privileges in Vista.

Although the legal trouble for Sony may be only starting, I think the technical discovery phase has wound down. But there are some interesting lessons to learn from the whole rootkit DRM affair beyond the obvious stuff thats been in the news.

Remember that Mark Russinovich installed the rootkit on his system unknowingly, just by playing the proprietary player you are required to use.

Of course the software on the CD does more than just play music at this point, it installs files on the computer and makes deep modifications to the Windows configuration, including patching the kernels system service table.

How could software get away with this undetected? The answer is that Russinovich trusted the CD and, what is more important, he ran it while he was logged in as administrator.

Running the computer as administrator is, of course, something we all know we should avoid and be careful about when we need to do it. Because Im such a loudmouth about this I have been trying to be careful myself.

/zimages/4/28571.gifWhat are the advantages of "least privilege" computing? Click here to read more.

For instance, right now on this computer as I type, Im running as a standard Windows domain user rather than as an administrator of any kind. Every now and then, for instance when I need to apply a Windows update, I need to log off and then log on as administrator, and its a big pain.

Given the work he does (developing software diagnostics, development tools and other systems software) theres no doubt that Russinovich needs to run as administrator a lot. He knows enough to be careful about what he does, especially when Web surfing. I know the feeling too from the times I need to run as admin. Running a music player didnt register as a dangerous thing to do.

What if a user were logged in as a Windows XP Home Limited User? Russinovich told me that in this case neither the player nor the rootkit will work, although I dont know the exact behavior of the failure. On the one hand the user is fortunate not to have a rootkit installed on their system, but Russinovich added that the fact that the player wont work is just another example of how badly written the software is.

In the long term, Windows Vista is supposed to deal with this situation in a way similar to the way Mac OS X does: When a task requires administrative privileges, the operating system intervenes and asks the user to provide administrator credentials if they want to allow it to proceed.

Lets assume that such a system is in place and that playing one of the offending Sony BMG music CDs triggers the system. A user will pop a music CD into their computer, wanting to play it. The system will ask for credentials. At this point a Mark Russinovich and maybe even I would become suspicious: Why would a music player need administrative privileges?

/zimages/4/28571.gifFor advice on how to secure your network and applications, as well as the latest security news, visit Ziff Davis Internets Security IT Hub.

But normal users will probably see this situation as similar to all the other times they installed software. Every now and then they need to provide these credentials and theyll just do it this time too.

Many Mac and Linux users are convinced that their systems are more secure because users default to less-privileged status, and theyre right to a degree. Windows has been moving in this same direction at a snails pace, and Vista is scheduled to be on par with the competition.

/zimages/4/28571.gifSonys DRM rootkit seems to affect Mac systems as well, but wheres the fix? Click here to read more.

Sadly, its not going to make that much of a difference, because the social engineering aspects of attacks can trump these measures often enough to keep the threats alive. It means that non-expert Mac and Linux users would be just as subject to such attacks (if anyone were writing them) and that only anti-virus and more advanced forms of threat detection can protect users for the foreseeable future.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at

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