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The Case for Keeping and Using UAC in Vista

written by: Lamar Stonecypher•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 5/12/2009

Though much maligned, Vista's User Access Control or UAC is more notable for the security it can sometimes provide than the annoyances it frequently provides. In this article we see if we can make a case for keeping UAC activated and then comfortably getting along with it.

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    Much has been written at Bright Hub and other technical websites on the Internet about the merits and lack of merits of Vista’s User Access Control. Many of these articles deal with how to deactivate or lessen the effectiveness of this security feature. Here we’ll not advocate any of the same. In fact, we wish to make the case for keeping and using UAC on your personal Vista PC.

    We also want to stress the personal part. Here we won’t be looking at multi-user machines or office networked machines. This is specifically aimed at the nearly 75% of Vista PCs where the owner is the PC’s administrator and sole user account.*

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    User Accounts in Previous Versions of Windows

    Previous versions of Windows introduced the notion that a Windows machine would have different classes of users. One would be the administrator, who would be capable of making basic changes to the machine’s configuration and settings. Below the administrator came the regular user. A regular user could modify his personal settings, but not make changes that affected the entire machine. Outside of the networked environment and a few multi-user home accounts, 75% of the time the administrator and the regular user were the same person.*

    Since this admin-user was in complete control of the PC, applications such as program installers and, yes, certain Windows OS programs assumed the same level of privilege (or rights) to make system-level changes. This meant that any application could make changes to the system, including changes made by malware.

    Malware installation, in fact, can be undetectable in Windows XP. Several antivirus companies stepped into this breech, but there’s no native service running in Windows XP to alert the user to a potential problem.

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    User Access Control in Vista

    UAC was designed around the notion that there should be no system-level changes happening without the user being notified. This was done by providing a new type of user account called the “Protected Admin” or PA user. The first user to register with Vista becomes the PA. PA accounts are self-elevating. This means that the account works like a regular user most of the time. When Vista detects that the user needs to make certain changes, it automatically elevates to a PA prompt. “Do you wish to continue?” A single click then agrees.

    There are other activities, however, that cause UAC to go into a lock-down mode called “Secure Desktop.” This is the blackening of the screen and cessation of other activities that many Vista users find objectionable, if not down-right undesirable. It’s meant to draw your attention. It’s the equivalent of Vista saying, “Hey, wait a cotton-picking minute. Are you really sure that you want to do this?”

    One of the reasons that it goes to the secure desktop mode is to keep malware from blocking or, even worse, spoofing the lesser “Do you wish to continue” prompt. During the time the secure desktop is active, no alterations to the system-level state are possible. The PA is also automatically elevated to answer the prompt with a click or two.

    As an example, let’s look at a type of malware attack called a “drive-by download.” This happens when the user visits a malicious site and something malicious is downloaded to his machine without his knowledge or consent. In Windows XP, one had to hope that his antivirus software caught this. In Vista, UAC certainly will, and while it’s waiting for your answer, nothing gets downloaded and nothing gets installed on your PC.

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    UAC is a Teaching Tool

    Most prompts in Vista don’t involve the secure desktop. In fact, UAC is an instructional tool as well as a damage-prevention tool. After using a Vista machine for a while, the user gets a feel for what activities are likely to bring up a UAC prompt and then expects them. The flip side of expecting them, of course, is that he becomes quite adept at blowing them away, clicking through them in half-a-second or less.

    That users learn to do this is because of a flaw in UAC. Microsoft did not program UAC to intelligently advise the user WHY the prompt is issued, so the user has no incentive not to plow through them.

    Still, when a prompt appears when/where the user is not expecting one, it’s an unusual occurrence that may need to be investigated.

    Another behavioral aspect of UAC is that it teaches the user not to run programs downloaded from the Internet directly from the browser, especially if using Internet Explorer. It’s safer in general to download the program’s installer locally, run a virus scan on it, and then run it.

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    Next: Flaws in UAC, Frequency of Prompts is Decreasing, Changes Coming in Windows 7, Decreasing the Number of UAC Prompts You See, and the Conclusion.

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    * “User Access Control” at the Engineering Windows 7 blog

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    Understanding Windows User Access Control - Keeping and Using UAC in Vista In this second page of "The Case for Keeping and Using User Access Control in Vista" we explore some complaints about how UAC works now, such as it not learning from repetitive activations and warning the user when a prompt is coming. Then we look at some data from Microsoft's "Customer Experience Improvement Index" that shows that the frequency of UAC prompts has come down substantially in the last six months. Next we look at changes to UAC coming in Windows 7 and conclude the article by talking about ways to avoid excessive UAC prompts, including downloading programs without using the "Run" option in Internet Explorer, running Firefox instead, updating your applications, and enabling Windows update to have it run at a time that the computer is actually on. vista uac, tweak uac, using vista uac, vista uac safety, vista uac purpose
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    UAC can be a Pain to Use

    Not all is rosy in UAC-land. My two favorite complaints about UAC are:

    UAC does not learn. If I’ve started an application by double-clicking the executable before, UAC shouldn’t continue to bleat when I do it again. There’s no (easy) way to add an application to a “trusted zone” in Vista. There’s no “Always run as admin” choice in the right-click menu, either. Even more frustrating is that UAC does not like updaters – programs that run infrequently to check for updates.

    UAC warns you that a prompt is coming. This is silly. Many of the tasks I perform cause two prompts. The first tells me that “Windows needs my permission to continue,” and the second prompt asks me if I “want to continue.”

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    The Frequency of UAC Prompts is Decreasing

    That’s right. Many Vista machines have customer feedback enabled in the form of the "Customer Experience Improvement Index." This is the anonymous "Do you want to tell Microsoft about it" prompt after a crash and the silly, in my opinion "check for fixes" that never solves anything for me. Not once.

    But Microsoft has been collecting all sorts of other data from these anonymous reports. One of interest has been the tracking of UAC prompts. In August 2007, they recorded almost 80,000 prompts. By August 2008, it was down to about 15,000/month.*

    There are several factors at work here. One is that third-party application developers have gotten better at writing software that avoids unnecessary UAC prompts. Another is that users have learned what induces UAC prompts on their machines and avoid doing such tasks if not essential. A third factor may be Service Pack 1 for Vista. Microsoft’s early data indicates that SP 1 produces a few percentage points fewer UAC prompts.

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    Changes Coming in Windows 7

    In the blog post “User Access Control” at the Engineering Windows 7 blog, the team has indicated that Windows 7 will reduce unnecessary/repeated prompts, provide more information about why the prompt was issued, and provide some form of user control over the prompting mechanism, such as what actions will or will not produce a prompt.

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    Although users have valid reasons for objecting to UAC in its present form, it still is the best automatic protection against malware and poorly-coded applications provided in any version of Windows. Our time is not so precious that we can’t click away a warning or two in the course of normal use, and when Vista bleats by activating the secure desktop, it’s certainly going to get our attention. In a way, it’s better to deal with the devil we know than wonder about the devil we don’t.

    That’s my position. I don’t think that UAC is flawless, and it annoys me more than it helps me. Still, if it keeps me from doing something stupid every month or two, it’s worth dealing with the rest of time.

    Want to reduce the number of UAC prompts that you experience? I have some suggestions.

    First, don’t use the “Run” menu choice in Internet Explorer. That basically downloads whatever app you’re interested in to a temporary folder on your desktop and runs it from there. Of course, UAC won’t like this. Try saving the file to your PC instead, and then run your antivirus program on it before double-clicking the file.

    Even better, try using Firefox as your main web browser. Firefox has its own built-in safeguards, like running your antivirus program on any downloaded files, but it does not have Internet Explorer’s “Protected Mode” which is responsible for so many UAC prompts.

    Keep your applications updated. Third-party providers are getting better and better at having their applications avoid or reduce UAC prompts.

    And, as I find myself writing so often, enable Windows Update on your PC and set it to update at a time when your computer is actually on. I’m amazed to no end at how many folks leave it at Vista’s default setting, which is 3:00 am.

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    * “User Access Control” at the Engineering Windows 7 blog

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    Further Reading

    How to Speed Up Vista's Boot Time - Can you bake bread in the time it takes for your Vista PC to start up? Or does it seem that way? Fortunately, there are some relatively easy steps to take to speed up Vista's boot time. We describe four of them here.

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    How to Create a Bootable Disk in Vista - Need a backup method to start a Vista PC? Creating a bootable disc in Vista is not as easy as in previous versions of Windows, but it can be done. This article tells you how.

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    How Did They Come Up with "7" for the New Version of Windows? - Since Mike Nash announced in the Vista Team Blog that the next version of Windows is to be officially called “Windows 7,” some people have been wondering how they came up with this number. To find out, let’s take a brief look back at past versions of Windows and their numbered release sequence.

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    How to Set a Restore Point in Vista - In a perfect world, we'd all be more careful about backing up our PC before making major changes. In the world we actually live in, just having a way to "go back" often has to suffice. Here, we look at making going back easier.