imnuts' Blog
Random stuff from my mind…

Major Security Issues in Vista

There are thousands of people out there currently with Windows Vista installed on their computers. Many people have the public Beta 2 release installed, while the majority of the managed beta testers likely have the latest public build, 5456, installed, and then there are likely those that have managed to acquired the latest build and install it even without being in the beta program. Either way, there are a lot of folks out there running this operating system. Many are still just waiting until it is actually released to ever install it though, figuring it is to buggy, incompatible, unstable, or whatever. Some may not even know that the operating system exists.

For those that do know that Windows Vista is out there and what it is, you’ve likely noticed a big increase in security related workings in Vista. Things like Windows Defender being integrated to prevent spyware, to a two-way firewall that blocks inbound and outbound protection. There is also UAC, which is meant to ask for user confirmation when a program or action is going to modify something that will affect the entire system, like Windows Updates, driver installation, or program installation. This prevents things from getting into places that they aren’t meant to be without you know, and also helps prevent them from running. To make computers safer for younger people, there are also Parental controls built into the operating system that act to prevent the younger users from accessing web sites or doing other tasks that involve certain things without parental approval, and all actions are logged. Basically, Vista is out there to protect the user from dangerous content, and does an ok job.

But, there are other security issues that many people probably don’t know about. The big one, that was a huge issue with Windows XP, is the built in Administrator account. In Windows XP, this account was likely not touched by millions of users, and since it was left as active and had no password, was a hacker’s dream come true. Some folks left it there as the fallback account in case something went wrong. Either way, this is a huge security issue, and is something to watch out for. In Vista, they have somewhat fixed the problem. The default Administrator account is the only full administrator account on the computer, meaning no UAC prompts or anything. They can do anything without any annoying prompts or other questions. So, to prevent a security issue, this account is disabled by default now. The problem is that there is still no password set on the account. While that doesn’t matter so much for many people as you can’t specifically log in to the system with this account normally, it does allow users to log into this account without questions in Safe Mode.

Now, while that shouldn’t be a concern, it does allow unrestricted access to everything if the user boots into safe mode. While I personally do not see this as a huge issue, there are many out there that do. Why don’t I consider this major? Many people say that this is a problem because it allows that account open in safe mode and someone could just log in and change the password(s) on your account(s) or, possibly a child turning off the parental controls. My argument against this fact is that, if you leave your computer open long enough to have someone restart into safe mode and log in with that user account, a changed password or altered parental controls are the least of your worries. You aren’t going to have a remote user gain access to your system and alter things as the account is disabled an unusable when users are normally on the system. It also doesn’t pose a threat, or shouldn’t pose a threat, for businesses, as they should take measures to secure their systems, and likely do the same thing with Windows XP currently. I also say this isn’t an issue due to password altering tools that can be used via booting off of a CD, which would essentially be the same thing as safe mode altering of passwords. There really isn’t a huge valid argument that I can see for this being a major issue like some are making it out to be.

The other security issue, which I would consider to be HUGE, is the installation DVD. Now many people might wonder why I would consider the installation DVD to be a huge issue. Well, if you’ve ever had to use the recovery options, you would recognize why. The command prompt there allows full, unrestricted access to the system. Where Windows Vista would give security dialogs when trying to delete or move files, the command prompt doesn’t do any of this. The only way to really protect yourself from this type of problem is BitLocker, which, in its current state, isn’t much help. If a user shows up with an installation DVD and a portable hard drive, they could just copy anything and everything from your system over in a few minutes, just by restarting the computer and booting off of the installation DVD. Basically, there isn’t much a person can do to prevent this type of issue.

Now, one could relate this to the Administrator account, but this is failsafe. Users can alter the password on the Administrator account, but many do not change any of the boot information, leaving the system completely open to changing the boot media and gaining this type of access. Now, some may say, why not just take the hard drive itself, or even the full computer? Well, that is very noticeable. Just restarting isn’t that noticeable, people may just think it just randomly restarted, as seems to happen often according to Apple, even though it really doesn’t since people have stopped using Windows ME. Basically, a restart is much less noticeable than just stealing the stuff. It can also be a lot easier to do and is essentially toolless. It is very easy to carry around a DVD and portable hard drive. Carrying around all the tools one may need to remove a hard drive isn’t exactly as easy, and just stealing the entire tower isn’t as practical. Due to the change in the NTFS version that Vista uses, many popular Live Linux distributions won’t necessarily work either to copy data.

The ideal solution to this is to have the setup program that runs after installation require a password for the user account that is created, and then apply that password to the disabled Administrator account as well. This will prevent having accounts without passwords, making the first ‘hole’ harder to exploit. The way to fix the second issue would be to require the user to log into the installation, much in the same way that the Windows XP Recovery Console does. If you don’t have an administrator log in, you can’t do anything as far as the recovery tools go for the setup DVD. These are two fixes that would essentially prevent any access to the system in an easy manner. Then, if BitLocker is fixed and it actually starts working, that would add another level of security to the system and make it even harder for data to be taken from the system without authorization. Hopefully, the developers look at these issues and make some attempt to try and address them so that the security can be enhanced even more for the next Windows operating system.

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