Admin rights underpin many Windows exploits, analysis finds

Including 100 percent of IE flaws

Organisations could dramatically cut their exposure to vulnerabilities in Microsoft software simply by limiting Windows admin rights, an analysis by BeyondTrust has reminded the world.

Using flaw data drawn from Microsoft's security bulletins throughout 2010, removing admin rights for users of Office and Internet Explorer would have mitigated security worries in 100 percent of cases.

Overall, of the 256 vulnerabilities published by the company during the year, 163, or 64 percent, would have been mitigated by removing admin rights. On the operating system side, 76 out of 162 flaws could be avoided using the same tactic.

Of the 142 Windows 7 flaws ever made public, 42 percent would be mitigated by removing admin rights.

The idea of removing or limiting admin rights is not a new one but is not simple to implement. Admin rights are often left on in Windows and managed through User Account Control (UAC) because restricting them causes problems for some applications, including legacy apps that assume such rights.

BeyondTrust's long-standing solution is a product called PowerBroker for Desktops which admins can use to define rights on an app-by-app or process-by-process basis, but always while keeping them to a minimum.

"Microsoft does a great job identifying and patching those vulnerabilities, but the pure number demonstrates the volume of vulnerabilities in some of the most common business software in the enterprise," said BeyondTrust's director of program management, Peter Beauregard.

If buying a software product to manage admin rights for one company's products doesn't appeal, a second argument is that limiting the same rights will also protect against a percentage of unknown vulnerabilities as well, he said. That would include non-Microsoft vulnerabilities that exploit the same privilege escalation design.

"Patching alone doesn't protect the enterprise, because so many vulnerabilities are undiscovered and others could take weeks to patch. Removing administrative privileges from users is the only way to eliminate the vast majority of risk that comes from these vulnerabilities," said Beauregard.

One dimension not addressed by the report is the situation of consumers who run Windows with admin privileges turned on by default. For this section of the Windows population, the only resort is a well of skepticism and the willingness to click 'no' when the Windows UAC interface throws up a request for admin rights.

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John E Dunn

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