The ultimate guide to Windows 7 security

Learn how to put AppLocker, BitLocker to Go, security accounts, and other key Windows 7 security improvements to good use.

Windows 7 has been warmly received and swiftly adopted by businesses, with the result that many IT admins are now struggling with the platform's new security features. In addition to changes to User Account Control, BitLocker, and other features inherited from Windows Vista, Windows 7 introduces a slew of security capabilities that businesses will want to take advantage of.

Windows 7 improves on Vista with a friendlier UAC mechanism, the ability to encrypt removable media and hard drive volumes, broader support for strong cryptographic ciphers, hassle-free secure remote access, and sophisticated protection against Trojan malware in the form of AppLocker, to name just a few.

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In this guide, I'll run through these and other significant security enhancements in Windows 7, and provide my recommendations for configuring and using them. I'll pay especially close attention to the new AppLocker application-control feature, which may be a Windows shop's most practical and affordable way to combat socially engineered Trojan malware.

New and improvedWindows 7 has literally hundreds of security changes and additions, far too many to cover in one fell swoop. While this guide focuses on the ones that most organizations will be interested in, keep in mind that plenty of others may deserve your attention. A few the biggies not discussed here are built-in support for smart cards and biometrics, the ability to force the use of Kerberos in a feature called Restrict NTLM, and support for the new DNSSec standards, which are becoming essential to prevent DNS exploitation attacks. Also noteworthy is a new feature called Extended Protection for Authentication, which prevents many sophisticated man-in-the-middle attacks that can strike at some of our most trusted security protocols (such as SSL and TLS).

User Account Control. A Windows Vista feature that users loved to hate, User Account Control has been significantly improved to be both less intrusive and smarter at distinguishing between legitimate and potentially malicious activities in Windows 7. However, depending on whether you are logged on as administrator or a standard user, some installs of Windows 7 may have a default UAC security setting that's one level lower than some experts (including yours truly) recommend. Standard users have UAC security default to the most secure setting, while administrator accounts reside a notch below the highest setting, which is potentially riskier.

Note too that, although UAC provides a much-needed mechanism to prevent the misuse of administrator privileges, it can be bypassed. If you need high security, users should not log on with an elevated user account until they need it.

Your domain environment should already be at the highest and most secure level ("Always notify"). If it isn't, make it so. That way, users will be prompted to input their passwords to perform high-risk administrative actions. No matter what else, UAC should be enabled.

BitLocker Drive Encryption. In Windows 7, BitLocker Drive Encryption technology is extended from OS drives and fixed data drives to include removable storage devices such as portable hard drives and USB flash drives. This new capability is called BitLocker to Go.

In Windows Vista SP1, Microsoft added official support for encrypting fixed data drives, but it could only be done using command-line tools. Now you can encrypt operating system volumes, fixed data drives, and USB flash drives with a simple right-click, via the Windows Explorer GUI. Moreover, you can use smart cards to protect data volumes, and you can set up data recovery agents to automatically back up BitLocker keys. If you're using a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip, you can enforce a minimum PIN length; five characters should suffice for most environments.

In Windows 7, there is no need to create separate partitions before turning on BitLocker. The system partition is automatically created and does not have a drive letter, so it is not visible in Windows Explorer and data files will not be written to it inadvertently. The system partition is smaller in Windows 7 than in Windows Vista, requiring only 100MB of space.

With BitLocker to go, you can encrypt removable drives one at a time or require that all removable media be encrypted by default. Further, encrypted removable media can be decrypted and reencrypted on any Windows 7 computers -- not just the one it was originally encrypted on.

BitLocker to Go Reader (bitlockertogo.exe) is a program that works on computers running Windows Vista or Windows XP, allowing you to open and view the content of removable drives that have been encrypted with BitLocker in Windows 7.

You should enable BitLocker (preferably with TPM and another factor) on portable computers if you do not use another data encryption product. Store the BitLocker PINs and recovery information in Active Directory or configure a domain-wide public key called a data recovery agent that will permit an administrator to unlock any drive encrypted with BitLocker. Require BitLocker to Go on all possible removable media drives.

Easily encrypted page file. Users who cannot utilize BitLocker but still want to prevent the memory swap page file from being analyzed in an offline sector editing attack no longer need to erase the page file on shutdown. Windows XP and earlier versions had a setting that allowed the page file to be erased on shutdown and rebuilt on each startup. It's a great security feature, but it often caused delayed shutdowns and startups -- sometimes adding as much as 10 minutes to the process.

In Windows 7 (and Vista), you can enable page file encryption. Even better: There is no key management. Windows creates and deletes the encryption keys as needed, so there is no chance the user can "lose" the key or require a recovery. It's crypto security at its best.

Better cryptography. Windows 7 includes all the latest industry-accepted ciphers, such as AES (Advanced Encryption Standard), ECC (Elliptical Curve Cryptography), and the SHA-2 hash family. In fact, Windows 7 implements all of the ciphers in Suite B, a group of cryptographic algorithms approved by the National Security Agency and National Institute of Standards and Technology for use in general-purpose encryption software.

While Microsoft added support for Suite B cryptographic algorithms (AES, ECDSA, ECDH, SHA2) to Windows Vista, Windows 7 allows Suite B ciphers to be used with Transport Layer Security (referred to as TLS v.1.2) and Encrypting File System (EFS). Suite B ciphers should be used whenever possible. However, it's important to note that Suite B ciphers are not usually compatible with versions of Windows prior to Windows Vista.

By default, all current technologies in Windows will use industry standard ciphers. No more legacy, proprietary ciphers are used. Those legacy ciphers that still exist are included only for backward-compatibility purposes. Microsoft has shared the new ciphers in detail with the crypto world for analysis and evaluation. Key and hash sizes are increased by default.

EFS (Encrypting File System) has been improved in many ways beyond using more modern ciphers. For one, you can use a smart card to protect your EFS keys. This not only makes EFS keys more secure, but allows them to be portable between computers.

Administrators will be happy to know that they can prevent users from creating self-signed EFS keys. Previously, users could easily turn on EFS, which generated a self-signed EFS digital certificate if a compatible PKI server could not be found. Too often, these users encrypted files but did not back up their self-signed digital certificates, which frequently led to unrecoverable data loss.

With Windows 7, administrators can still allow self-signed EFS keys, while mandating ciphers and minimum key lengths. Windows 7 will prod users to back up their EFS digital certificates to some other removable media or network drive share -- and keep prodding them until they do it. A Microsoft Web page details the EFS changes.

Safer browsing with IE 8. Users don't need Windows 7 to run IE 8, and if they're running an older version of IE on an older operating system, they should upgrade to IE 8 as soon as possible. Even better, from a security standpoint, is running IE 8 on Windows 7.

Not only is IE 8 more secure by default than previous versions of the browser, but IE 8 is more secure on Windows 7 than on Windows XP. The recent Chinese Google zero-day hacking attack demonstrates this more effectively than anything I could come up with. The Chinese attacks work most effectively on IE 6 and not very well on IE 8 (see the relative risk ratings). Microsoft tested a number of related exploits and found that they were significantly harder to accomplish in IE 8, and harder still in IE 8 on Windows 7.

Naturally, application and Website compatibility issues will guide how quickly Windows shops can move to the new browser -- but run some tests. I have no shortage of clients who are still clinging to IE 6 and haven't conducted any compatibility testing in over a year. Often when I goad them into retesting their troublesome application with IE 8, it works.

Multiple active firewall policies
. Prior to Windows 7, when a user had multiple network interfaces active, only one Windows Firewall profile (i.e. Home, Domain, Work, or Public) could be used. This created potential security vulnerabilities, such as when a computer was both wired to the local network domain and connected to a less restricted wireless network. Windows 7 can now detect multiple networks and apply the appropriate firewall profile to the right interface.

Improved System Restore. System Restore now includes the user's personal content files. Older versions backed up and protected only the Windows system files. System Restore also allows you to see what files would be restored in each version of the System Restore files. It's not perfect, but it's nice to see what will occur if you were to choose a particular restoration point.

Smooth remote access
. DirectAccess allows remote users to securely access enterprise resources (such as shares, Websites, applications, and so on) without connecting to traditional types of VPNs. DirectAccess establishes bidirectional connectivity with a user's enterprise network every time a user's DirectAccess-enabled portable computer connects to the Internet, even before the user logs on. The advantage here is that users never have to think about connecting to the enterprise network, and IT administrators can manage remote computers even when the computers are not connected to the VPN.

Once DirectAccess is enabled, when a user's computer connects to the Internet, it's as though he or she is on the organization's local network. Group policies work, remote management tools work, and automatic push patching works.

Unfortunately, DirectAccess has fairly involved requirements, including Windows Server 2008 R2 (to act as the RAS server), Windows 7 Enterprise or Ultimate clients, PKI, IPv6, and IPSec. But as companies put the necessary pieces into place, they should look into using DirectAccess as their default VPN technology for Windows 7 and later clients.

Managed Service Accounts
. Service accounts are often highly privileged, but difficult to manage. Best-practice recommendations dictate changing service account passwords frequently, so as to avoid the risk of password attacks. However, Windows service accounts often require two or more coordinated, synchronized password changes in order for the service to continue running without interruption; prior to Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2, service accounts were not easy to manage. If a service account is enabled as a Managed Service Account, Windows will take over the password management and simplify management of Kerberos SPN (Service Principal Names).

Like DirectAccess, Managed Service Accounts have a lot of requirements, including a schema update and mandatory use of PowerShell 2. Still, if service accounts are a hassle in your environment -- and you know they are -- consider enabling this new feature when your infrastructure is prepared.

Virtual Service Accounts
. Virtual Service Accounts (VSAs) are related to Managed Service Accounts in that Windows takes over the password management. However, VSAs are for local service accounts and don't require a schema update or nearly the amount of effort to configure and use.

When a VSA controls a service, the service accesses the network with the computer's identity (in a domain environment), which is much like what the built-in LocalSystem and Network Service accounts do, except that VSAs allow each service to have its own separate security domain and corresponding isolation.

Creating a Virtual Service Account is pretty easy. Open the Services console (services.msc) and modify the service's logon account name so that it's the same as the service's short name, such as ex. NT SERVICE\ServiceName$. Then restart the service. That's it.

When the infrastructure can support it, consider using Managed and Virtual Service Accounts functionality to manage service account password security.

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