The ultimate guide to Windows 7 security

Learn how to put AppLocker, BitLocker to Go, security accounts, and other key Windows 7 security improvements to good use

In Windows 7, there is no need to create separate partitions before turning on BitLocker. The system partition is automatically created and does not have a drive letter, so it is not visible in Windows Explorer and data files will not be written to it inadvertently. The system partition is smaller in Windows 7 than in Windows Vista, requiring only 100MB of space.

With BitLocker to go, you can encrypt removable drives one at a time or require that all removable media be encrypted by default. Further, encrypted removable media can be decrypted and reencrypted on any Windows 7 computers -- not just the one it was originally encrypted on.

BitLocker to Go Reader (bitlockertogo.exe) is a program that works on computers running Windows Vista or Windows XP, allowing you to open and view the content of removable drives that have been encrypted with BitLocker in Windows 7.

You should enable BitLocker (preferably with TPM and another factor) on portable computers if you do not use another data encryption product. Store the BitLocker PINs and recovery information in Active Directory or configure a domain-wide public key called a data recovery agent that will permit an administrator to unlock any drive encrypted with BitLocker. Require BitLocker to Go on all possible removable media drives.

Easily encrypted page file. Users who cannot utilize BitLocker but still want to prevent the memory swap page file from being analyzed in an offline sector editing attack no longer need to erase the page file on shutdown. Windows XP and earlier versions had a setting that allowed the page file to be erased on shutdown and rebuilt on each startup. It's a great security feature, but it often caused delayed shutdowns and startups -- sometimes adding as much as 10 minutes to the process.

In Windows 7 (and Vista), you can enable page file encryption. Even better: There is no key management. Windows creates and deletes the encryption keys as needed, so there is no chance the user can "lose" the key or require a recovery. It's crypto security at its best.

Better cryptography. Windows 7 includes all the latest industry-accepted ciphers, such as AES (Advanced Encryption Standard), ECC (Elliptical Curve Cryptography), and the SHA-2 hash family. In fact, Windows 7 implements all of the ciphers in Suite B, a group of cryptographic algorithms approved by the National Security Agency and National Institute of Standards and Technology for use in general-purpose encryption software.

While Microsoft added support for Suite B cryptographic algorithms (AES, ECDSA, ECDH, SHA2) to Windows Vista, Windows 7 allows Suite B ciphers to be used with Transport Layer Security (referred to as TLS v.1.2) and Encrypting File System (EFS). Suite B ciphers should be used whenever possible. However, it's important to note that Suite B ciphers are not usually compatible with versions of Windows prior to Windows Vista.

By default, all current technologies in Windows will use industry standard ciphers. No more legacy, proprietary ciphers are used. Those legacy ciphers that still exist are included only for backward-compatibility purposes. Microsoft has shared the new ciphers in detail with the crypto world for analysis and evaluation. Key and hash sizes are increased by default.

EFS (Encrypting File System) has been improved in many ways beyond using more modern ciphers. For one, you can use a smart card to protect your EFS keys. This not only makes EFS keys more secure, but allows them to be portable between computers.

Administrators will be happy to know that they can prevent users from creating self-signed EFS keys. Previously, users could easily turn on EFS, which generated a self-signed EFS digital certificate if a compatible PKI server could not be found. Too often, these users encrypted files but did not back up their self-signed digital certificates, which frequently led to unrecoverable data loss.

With Windows 7, administrators can still allow self-signed EFS keys, while mandating ciphers and minimum key lengths. Windows 7 will prod users to back up their EFS digital certificates to some other removable media or network drive share -- and keep prodding them until they do it. A Microsoft Web page details the EFS changes.

Safer browsing with IE 8. Users don't need Windows 7 to run IE 8, and if they're running an older version of IE on an older operating system, they should upgrade to IE 8 as soon as possible. Even better, from a security standpoint, is running IE 8 on Windows 7.

Not only is IE 8 more secure by default than previous versions of the browser, but IE 8 is more secure on Windows 7 than on Windows XP. The recent Chinese Google zero-day hacking attack demonstrates this more effectively than anything I could come up with. The Chinese attacks work most effectively on IE 6 and not very well on IE 8 (see the relative risk ratings). Microsoft tested a number of related exploits and found that they were significantly harder to accomplish in IE 8, and harder still in IE 8 on Windows 7.

Naturally, application and Website compatibility issues will guide how quickly Windows shops can move to the new browser -- but run some tests. I have no shortage of clients who are still clinging to IE 6 and haven't conducted any compatibility testing in over a year. Often when I goad them into retesting their troublesome application with IE 8, it works.

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Roger A. Grimes

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