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Lock Down Windows 7 With User Account Control

It's more user-friendly than the Vista version

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The Windows 7 User Account Control panel (click for larger version)

The Windows 7 User Account Control panel (click for larger version)

One of the greatest annoyances users had with Windows Vista was User Account Control, also known as UAC. This technology was intended to make Windows safer by alerting a user when a program wanted to make a change to the computer. Although it was a good idea, the implementation of UAC drove most users crazy, with an unending series of popups and prompts.

Microsoft realized that and significantly changed UAC in Windows 7, making it much more user-friendly, and giving you greater control over its operation. In Vista, UAC had two states: Off and On. In Windows 7, you have a number of choices. Here's what you need to know about each of them, to make your computer more secure.

First, reach the UAC window by clicking on Start/Control Panel/Sytem and Security/Change User Account Control Settings. That will bring up the window seen at the top of this article. As you can see, there are four settings: they start at the most secure at the top, going down to the least secure. The slider on the left is used to set the UAC level. We'll discuss each level.

  • Level 1: Always notify. This top-most setting is the most secure, and the most annoying -- it is essentially the UAC setting from Vista. It always notifies you when a setting has been changed by you or a program, or another program (not controlled by you) tries to make changes. This will result in multiple pop-ups, and you could quickly grow tired of them. On the other hand, it assures that you will know about any changes made to Windows. In you work in high-security settings like the military or with sensitive financial data, for example, this may be the proper setting for you -- in fact, it may be required in some cases.
  • Level 2: Notify when programs make changes. This step down is the default UAC setting, so it's what Windows 7 will be set to initially. It won't tell you about changes you're making to Windows; it's concerned about other programs making changes. It also dims your screen when it detects these changes, and won't let you do anything else until you allow or disallow the change a program is attempting to make. This screen-dimming behavior is known as "secure desktop."
  • Level 3: Same as Level 2, only without "secure desktop". This brings up alerts for the same things as Level 2, but without dimming your screen. Microsoft says it's "slightly" less secure than Level 2, and "not recommended." It is less secure, if only slightly less so.
  • Level 4: The "no secure" option. If you turn off UAC, you won't be alerted when any programs make changes to Windows. Only use this setting if you want your computer compromised and open to the bad guys on the Internet. I join with Microsoft in urging you to keep UAC turned on.

In general, I would recommend keeping the default setting, which is Level 2. Yes, the screen dimming can be annoying, since it keeps you from doing anything else for a moment. But the tradeoff in increased security is well worth it, in my opinion. And you won't get nearly as many prompts as you did with Vista. I think it's a good balance between productivity and security.

One further caution: security experts have written that since UAC has been so annoying in the past, many users simply ignore the warnings and choose to install whatever program or setting change is listed in the prompt, whether they recognize a program or not. Others simply turn UAC off altogether.

This is very dangerous. It's there to protect you, not annoy you. If you just downloaded a program from the Internet or loaded a program from a CD, you can be confident that it's making changes you know about. If you did not specifically make a change or load some software, do a Google or other Internet search for the program about which you're being warned: it could well be a piece of malicious software trying to infiltrate your computer. Read the prompts, and don't install something you weren't expecting, or that you know nothing about.

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