Windows 7 Security: What You Need to Know, Part Three

Malicious Trojans continue to plague end-users' desktops, yet most machines aren't exploited due to missing patches (although this is the second biggest cause), unpatched zero days (almost never a factor), drive-by downloads, or misconfigurations. Nope, most systems are infected because users are duped into intentionally installing programs that Web sites say they need. These socially engineered Trojans come in the guise of anti-virus scanners, needed codecs for a media player, fake patches, and just about any other bait the bad guys can concoct to lure end-users into installing their Trojan file.

[See Windows 7 Security: What You Need to Know, Part One]

[See Windows 7 Security: What You Need to Know, Part Two]

The most effective means of thwarting these types of threats in an enterprise environment is preventing end-users from installing unapproved programs. If you leave the decision up to end-users, they will almost always make the wrong choice. If they didn't, malware wouldn't be nearly as popular as it is today.

Microsoft's most sophisticated solution to the problem is AppLocker, an application-control feature included in Windows 7 (Ultimate and Enterprise versions) and Windows Server 2008 R2. This week, in part three of my ongoing series about Windows 7 security improvements, I'll discuss AppLocker. (You can read my part one, an overview of some of the security changes, and part two, covering XP Mode. Also, for the sake of full disclosure, I'm a full-time employee at Microsoft.)

Opening Up AppLocker
AppLocker is an improvement on the Software Restriction Policies (SRP) introduced with Windows XP Professional. AppLocker allows you to define application execution rules and exceptions based on file attributes such as path, publisher, product name, file name, file version, and so on. You can then assign policies to computers, users, security groups, and organizational units via Active Directory.

You can configure AppLocker locally using the Local Computer Policy object (gpedit.msc) or via Active Directory and Group Policy Objects (GPOs). AppLocker relies on the built-in Application Identity service, which is normally set to manual startup type by default. Administrators should configure the service to start automatically.

Within the local or group policy object, AppLocker is enabled and configured under the \Computer Configuration\Windows Settings\Security Settings\Application Control Policies container.

By default, AppLocker rules do not allow users to open or run any files that are not specifically allowed. First-time testers will benefit by allowing AppLocker to create a default set of "safe rules" using the Create Default Rules option. The default rules allow all files in Windows and Program Files to run, along with allowing members of the Administrators group to run anything.

One of the most notable improvements over SRP is the ability to run AppLocker against any computer using the Automatically Generate Rules option to quickly create a baseline set of rules. In a few minutes, dozens to hundreds of rules can be produced against a known clean image, saving administrators anywhere from hours to days of work.

Choice, Choices
AppLocker supports four types of rule collections: Executable, DLL, Windows Installer, and Script. SRP administrators will notice that Microsoft no longer has the registry rules or Internet zones options. Each rule collection covers a limited set of file types. For example, executable rules cover 32-bit and 64-bit .EXEs and .COMs; all 16-bit applications can be blocked by preventing the ntdvm.exe process from executing. Script rules cover .VBS, .JS, .PS1, .CMD, and .BAT file types. The DLL rule collection covers .DLLs (including statically linked libraries) and OCXs.

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