Thursday, July 31, 2008

Securing Windows XP Home Edition

5 Simple Steps For A More Secure Home Computer

Users should follow basic security advice like that found in Security Basics In A Home Computing Environment, Password Security, or In Depth Security. But, there are some additional steps to take that are unique to Windows XP Home edition.

The following list includes five things you can do to make sure your Windows XP Home edition is secure- including tricks and tips you might need to know in order to follow the advice from the other articles and implement those recommendations on this operating system.

1. Password Protect The Guest Account: This security measure is discussed in Microsoft Windows Security 101. However, it is not an easy or intuitive task in Windows XP Home. If you open the Control Panel and select User Accounts you will see a list of the users that are able to log on to the system. Selecting your own user account you will see an option that says "Assign Password" or, if a password is already assigned, "Change My Password". However, if you select the Guest account your options are limited to "Turn On The Guest Account" or "Turn Off The Guest Account" as the case may be.

Windows XP Home uses the Guest account as an integral part of network file and folder sharing. Using Simple File Sharing, when you share out a file or folder it is accessible to anyone who can "see" your computer. If you don't have other security measures in place such as a firewall that means that users on the public Internet may be able to connect to your share using the Guest account.

Even if you select "Turn Off The Guest Account" it will only be turned off in terms of its ability to log on directly to Windows. In the background, the account will still be functional because Windows XP Home uses the Guest account to authenticate users connecting remotely to shared resources on that machine. It is virtually impossible to truly disable the Guest account and doing so would cause a number of problems on a Windows XP Home computer.

So, in order to protect your system and ensure that not just anybody can connect to your file or folder shares- even when using Simple File Sharing- you need to assign a password to the Guest account. Because Windows XP Home offers no "easy" point and click solution to help you, you will have to use the command prompt. Click on Start, then All Programs, then Accessories and finally select Command Prompt. Once you have the black command prompt window open you will type the following:

  • net user guest

You will of course replace the brackets and the word "password" with the password you wish to assign. Refer to the Password Security article for tips on choosing a good password.

2. Enable The Internet Connection Firewall (ICF): Microsoft Windows XP - both Home and Professional editions- come with a built-in firewall. Unfortunately, it is not enabled by default so you have to know enough to go in and turn it on. For the record, I actually recommend that you leave ICF disabled and install a 3rd-party firewall such as Zone Labs ZoneAlarm which has a version available for free for personal use.

The advantage of using a 3rd-party product like ZoneAlarm is that it monitors both inbound and outbound traffic. ICF only monitors and blocks inbound traffic. That is great for protecting you from external hacking or malicious activity, however it will not protect you from situations where a virus or Trojan on your system attempts to initiate unauthorized or malicious network activity out from your computer.

In any event, ICF is better than nothing. It is free and it is built in. So, if you choose not to download and install a 3rd-party product you should at least turn on the Internet Connection Firewall. To enable ICF you need to select Network and Internet Connections from the Control Panel. Then select the Network Connections icon at the bottom of the screen.

At this point you need to right-click the network connection you want to enable ICF on. For most home users there should only be one network connection present. Simply right-click it and select Properties. Click on the Advanced tab and click the checkbox next to "Protect my computer...".

Once you enable ICF, the Settings button at the bottom of the Advanced tab will be enabled as well. If you click on Settings you can configure ICF to allow certain traffic through and what sorts of information you want logged. Most users will be fine leaving this on the default settings.

Whether you use ICF or some 3rd-party firewall, be aware that should you suddenly start experiencing problems connecting with certain sites, computers on your network or the Internet as a whole- your firewall is the first place you should look. Odds are there is some firewall rule that is blocking traffic you would rather allow.
3. Use Private Folders To Protect Data: As mentioned in Step 1 above, Windows XP Home uses something called Simple File Sharing for sharing files, folders and other resources. When you mark a file or folder as Shared, anyone who can get to your computer can access the share and the data it contains because of how Windows XP Home uses the Guest account and its blank password (unless you have followed the information in Step 1) to grant access. Windows XP Home does not allow for more customized file and folder sharing like you would find in Windows 2000 or in Windows XP Professional (with Simple File Sharing disabled).

Windows XP Home does offer the polar opposite of sharing though- marking a folder Private. If you mark a folder as Private the contents of that folder and any sub-folders will be accessible only by you.

To make the most of this feature it helps if you keep all of your personal or confidential data in one place so that you can just mark the one folder as Private rather than having to scour the computer looking for various folders you might want to keep Private. Your User Account folder under Documents and Settings which contains your My Documents folder, your Favorites and other personal configuration data for Windows is marked Private by default in Windows XP Home.

To mark a folder as private you need to right-click on it and select Sharing and Security. On the Sharing tab click the checkbox that says "Make This Folder Private". If the folder is owned by another user or by the operating system itself this option will be grayed out. You may also see a checkmark inthe box that is grayed out if the folder is a sub-folder of a different folder already marked as Private.

4. Use Limited Accounts For Everyday Use: Windows 2000 and Windows XP Professional offer a number of different user account types and also provide a means to create your own custom user account types. Windows XP Home essentially offers two choices- Administrator and Limited. The Administrator account has essentially full control over anything and everything on the computer. The Limited account can use the computer, but is extremely restricted in its ability to install software or alter system configurations in any way.

One of the primary reasons for using the Limited account is to protect the system from yourself. It's possible that a family member with Administrator access can accidentally change or delete critical information on the computer. It is also possible that someone with an Administrator account may have their account hacked or become infected with a virus or worm of some sort. Typically, the attacker or malware will be able to wreak havoc on the system using the access privileges of the account that has been compromised. So, it makes sense to save your Administrator account for when it is needed, but use Limited accounts for everyday use by most users.

To choose an account type in Windows XP Home click on User Accounts in the Control Panel. Once you select a user you can click on the "Change My Account Type" button. You will be able to choose between Administrator and Limited and can see a brief description of the abilities of each account type. You are required to have at least one Administrator account, so be sure to leave or create one- but save it for use when necessary and stick to using Limited accounts wherever possible.

5. Upgrade to Windows XP Professional: I realize that switching operating systems isn't exactly helpful for securing the one you have. However, it is truly my best recommendation for someone using Windows XP Home edition that wants to ensure a high degree of security on their system.

The Simple File Sharing "feature" which doesn't let you protect individual files or select which users can simply read the file vs. which ones can change or delete it turns out to be a feature you may not want if you're trying to be secure.

Windows XP Home lets you mark folders and their data as Private, but does not include support for EFS (Encrypted File System) which you can use in Windows 2000 and in Windows XP Professional to encrypt your data for even more protection from unauthorized access.

These are just a couple of reasons. The bottom line is that it seems that Microsoft did not have security in mind when selecting the features and options to include in Windows XP Home. Users who truly want to be secure (and don't want to switch to Linux or another operating system entirely) should move to Windows XP Professional .

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