Windows 8 raises the bar for PC security

Windows 8 is officially here. Microsoft held an event in New York yesterday to launch the new OS, and spent a lot of time talking about cool features and introducing a plethora of hardware options available with Windows 8. One thing Microsoft didn’t talk about much, though, is security—and the new features in Windows 8 that will keep your PC and data safe.

As with every previous iteration of the Windows operating system, Windows 8 is the most secure version yet. That really goes without saying, and amounts to little more than marketing hype. Each new version includes the security features of the previous one, but improves on them and adds new features to address potential risks missed by the predecessor. Not to suggest that Windows 8 is invulnerable, but it should be expected that it’s more secure than Windows 7, or any previous version of Windows.

Windows 8 Start
Windows 8 includes a number of features that make it more secure than Windows 7.

So, what makes Windows 8 more secure? Perhaps the biggest security feature of Windows 8 is really not a Microsoft or Windows 8 thing at all: UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface). UEFI is an open standard used to replace the archaic BIOS typically found on PC hardware.

UEFI has been around for a while, but systems built for Windows 8 (and Windows Server 2012) are the first to take advantage of the feature of UEFI that allows for pre-boot authentication. Basically, UEFI will only allow software with recognized, valid security certificates to run, so it prevents rootkits or other malware that might attempt to load at boot from doing so.

Next, we have Windows Defender. If you’re already using Windows Vista or Windows 7, or if you’ve downloaded the free tool to use with Windows XP, then you’re already familiar with Windows Defender…sort of. Previous versions of Windows Defender have been strictly anti-spyware, while Microsoft offered a separate, standalone tool for broader antimalware protection called Security Essentials. In Windows 8, the two are merged together so Windows Defender is actually a more comprehensive antimalware tool.

Windows Defender is part of Windows 8, and it’s enabled by default so you get protection right out of the box. However, Microsoft does allow for OEMs to disable and replace the Windows Defender protection with third-party tools. So, if you buy a system from Best Buy or Wal-Mart there’s a very good chance you’ll still have some sort of trial version of Norton antivirus or something pre-installed.

Windows Defender should still be there, though—you just need to enable it. Wolfgang Kandek, CTO of Qualys, points out that Windows Defender is primarily a consumer-oriented security tool. “Organizations, which typically require management capabilities, such as reports on machine update status and alerts of neutralized malware, will still need to look for an enterprise malware solution.”

With Windows 8, Microsoft takes the SmartScreen protection—which has been a very effective tool for guarding against malicious downloads when using Internet Explorer—and extends it to the entire operating system. Now, SmartScreen will warn and protect you even if you’re using an alternate browser, such as Firefox or Chrome, or just downloading a file across the network.

For organizations deploying Windows 8, Dynamic Access Control is also greatly enhanced. The current Dynamic Access Control lets IT admins restrict access to files and folders based on users and groups. The new Dynamic Access Control gives IT admins much more granular control—enabling access to be defined by virtually any Active Directory attribute.

For example, the old Dynamic Access Control allows for an organization to determine which users or groups are allowed to access a given folder. The new Dynamic Access Control enables an organization to allow access to a given folder as long as an individual is using an authorized company-issued iPad, but prevent that same individual from accessing the folder from their own personal iPad.

One last aspect of Windows 8 that contributes to better security is the focus on the Windows App Store. Microsoft wants individuals and organizations to migrate toward using apps that are developed to work within the Start screen Modern UI (the only software that will run with Windows RT). The upside for Windows 8 users is that the apps available in the App Store are vetted and scanned, so they should be inherently more secure.

Kandek sums up with, “Personally, I am in line for upgrading my home Windows machine to Windows 8.” Coming from the CTO of a company that deals in security, that says a lot about the security features of Windows 8.

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