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Windows security begins at the desktop

Beware malware and careless users

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The risks of desktop computing are now well known. They stem from the growth in financially motivated malware, which aims to steal from the user or from the user's employer.

Malware does this through viruses, worms and Trojans carried by emails, infected websites and so on. However, the tools to combat such attacks are now mature and malware is not a very profitable route into companies savvy enough to have deployed modern security systems and to keep their systems patched and updated.

Assume the worst

An alternative method is to hoodwink users into providing information, in effect working round the technological barriers.

It exploits the assumption made by many corporations that behind the firewall, the actions of employees are benign, or at least unlikely to be malicious. That is an unwise assumption.

Malicious intent can't always be discounted

Apart from the disgruntled employee, there is also the one who inadvertently inserts an infected USB memory device, perhaps aiming to capture passwords, into a PC and spreads the contagion to others on the network, compromising the entire company. Even here, malicious intent can't always be discounted.

Locking down the desktop is essential so that unencrypted USB devices – which includes smartphones – cannot be read.

Windows offers plenty of other ways in the local and group policy editors to prohibit users from performing potentially dangerous tasks such as installing software.

Strong and very long

Passwords are the first line of defence against outsiders. They are not the best way of securing the desktop, so they need to be strong, changed regularly but not too frequently, unique and at least eight characters long.

Note that passwords don't have to be so obscure that the user has to write them down. They just need to be not easily susceptible to automated dictionary hacks. Think of them as pass phrases rather than words.

You should consider implementing a form of two-factor authentication. Devices can include tokens or smart cards, or even users' mobile phones. There are plenty of third-party products out there to supplement Windows' in-built security.

Hard disks should be encrypted using Windows 7's BitLocker technology, which protects against the operating system being bypassed and data being read directly off the drive.

BitLocker also does integrity checking of early boot components to help ensure that the system has not been tampered with. If the machine is TPM 1.2-compliant, that is all you need to do. A USB key can store the BitLocker key on machines that are not TPM-compliant.

Patches and other updates need to be centrally managed and pushed out regularly to users.

For machines that are members of a domain, most of the above can be enforced fairly simply using the group policy editor.

USB ports can be locked down using an administrative template that contains a group policy template, although you should also create a local security policy which applies when the machine is off the network.

Digging deep

Get hold of Microsoft SysInternals too. They are powerful, invaluable tools for digging around in desktop systems, especially for security purposes.

Finally, you need to document your desktop security policies and who is responsible for what. Easy to forget perhaps, but you also need to inform users about what the policies are, why they are is there and how to comply with them.

Then they can mostly manage their own passwords and system security, lifting the burden from IT.

Maintaining security is a huge and never-ending task so this has necessarily been a very short tour of the highlights. Remember that everything is easier with user buy-in. ®

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