Network Security

In this second lesson in our How-To Geek School about securing the Windows devices in your network, we will talk about User Account Control (UAC). Users encounter this feature each time they need to install desktop applications in Windows, when some applications need administrator permissions in order to work and when they have to change different system settings and files.

UAC was introduced in Windows Vista as part of Microsoft’s “Trustworthy Computing” initiative. Basically, UAC is meant to act as a wedge between you and installing applications or making system changes. When you attempt to do either of these actions, UAC will pop up and interrupt you. You may either have to confirm you know what you’re doing, or even enter an administrator password if you don’t have those rights.

Some users find UAC annoying and choose to disable it but this very important security feature of Windows (and we strongly caution against doing that). That’s why in this lesson, we will carefully explain what UAC is and everything it does. As you will see, this feature has an important role in keeping Windows safe from all kinds of security problems.

In this lesson you will learn which activities may trigger a UAC prompt asking for permissions and how UAC can be set so that it strikes the best balance between usability and security. You will also learn what kind of information you can find in each UAC prompt.

Last but not least, you will learn why you should never turn off this feature of Windows. By the time we’re done today, we think you will have a newly found appreciation for UAC, and will be able to find a happy medium between turning it off completely and letting it annoy you to distraction.

What is UAC and How Does it Work?

UAC or User Account Control is a security feature that helps prevent unauthorized system changes to your Windows computer or device. These changes can be made by users, applications, and sadly, malware (which is the biggest reason why UAC exists in the first place). When an important system change is initiated, Windows displays a UAC prompt asking for your permission to make the change. If you don’t give your approval, the change is not made.

In Windows, you will encounter UAC prompts mostly when working with desktop applications that require administrative permissions. For example, in order to install an application, the installer (generally a setup.exe file) asks Windows for administrative permissions. UAC initiates an elevation prompt like the one shown earlier asking you whether it is okay to elevate permissions or not.

If you say “Yes,” the installer starts as administrator and it is able to make the necessary system changes in order to install the application correctly. When the installer is closed, its administrator privileges are gone. If you run it again, the UAC prompt is shown again because your previous approval is not remembered.

If you say “No,” the installer is not allowed to run and no system changes are made.

If a system change is initiated from a user account that is not an administrator, e.g. the Guest account, the UAC prompt will also ask for the administrator password in order to give the necessary permissions. Without this password, the change won’t be made.

Which Activities Trigger a UAC Prompt?

There are many types of activities that may trigger a UAC prompt:

  • Running a desktop application as an administrator
  • Making changes to settings and files in the Windows and Program Files folders
  • Installing or removing drivers and desktop applications
  • Installing ActiveX controls
  • Changing settings to Windows features like the Windows Firewall, UAC, Windows Update, Windows Defender, and others
  • Adding, modifying, or removing user accounts
  • Configuring Parental Controls in Windows 7 or Family Safety in Windows 8.x
  • Running the Task Scheduler
  • Restoring backed-up system files
  • Viewing or changing the folders and files of another user account
  • Changing the system date and time

You will encounter UAC prompts during some or all of these activities, depending on how UAC is set on your Windows device. If this security feature is turned off, any user account or desktop application can make any of these changes without a prompt asking for permissions. In this scenario, the different forms of malware existing on the Internet will also have a higher chance of infecting and taking control of your system.

In Windows 8.x operating systems you will never see a UAC prompt when working with apps from the Windows Store. That’s because these apps, by design, are not allowed to modify any system settings or files. You will encounter UAC prompts only when working with desktop programs.

What You Can Learn from a UAC Prompt?

When you see a UAC prompt on the screen, take time to read the information displayed so that you get a better understanding of what is going on. Each prompt first tells you the name of the program that wants to make system changes to your device, then you can see the verified publisher of that program.

Dodgy software tends not to display this information and instead of a real company name, you will see an entry that says “Unknown.” If you have downloaded that program from a less than trustworthy source, then it might be better to select “No” in the UAC prompt. The prompt also shares the origin of the file that’s trying to make these changes. In most cases the file origin is “Hard drive on this computer.”

You can learn more by pressing “Show details.”

You will see an additional entry named “Program location” where you can see the physical location on your hard drive, for the file that’s trying to perform system changes.

Make your choice based on the trust you have in the program you are trying to run and its publisher. If a less-known file from a suspicious location is requesting a UAC prompt, then you should seriously consider pressing “No.”

What’s Different About Each UAC Level?

Windows 7 and Windows 8.x have four UAC levels:

  • Always notify – when this level is used, you are notified before desktop applications make changes that require administrator permissions or before you or another user account changes Windows settings like the ones mentioned earlier. When the UAC prompt is shown, the desktop is dimmed and you must choose “Yes” or “No” before you can do anything else. This is the most secure and also the most annoying way to set UAC because it triggers the most UAC prompts.
  • Notify me only when programs/apps try to make changes to my computer (default) – Windows uses this as the default for UAC. When this level is used, you are notified before desktop applications make changes that require administrator permissions. If you are making system changes, UAC doesn’t show any prompts and it automatically gives you the necessary permissions for making the changes you desire. When a UAC prompt is shown, the desktop is dimmed and you must choose “Yes” or “No” before you can do anything else. This level is slightly less secure than the previous one because malicious programs can be created for simulating the keystrokes or mouse moves of a user and change system settings for you. If you have a good security solution in place, this scenario should never occur.
  • Notify me only when programs/apps try to make changes to my computer (do not dim my desktop) – this level is different from the previous in in the fact that, when the UAC prompt is shown, the desktop is not dimmed. This decreases the security of your system because different kinds of desktop applications (including malware) might be able to interfere with the UAC prompt and approve changes that you might not want to be performed.
  • Never notify – this level is the equivalent of turning off UAC. When using it, you have no protection against unauthorized system changes. Any desktop application and any user account can make system changes without your permission.

How to Configure UAC

If you would like to change the UAC level used by Windows, open the Control Panel, then go to “System and Security” and select “Action Center.”

On the column on the left you will see an entry that says “Change User Account Control settings.”

The “User Account Control Settings” window is now opened. Change the position of the UAC slider to the level you want applied then press “OK.”

Depending on how UAC was initially set, you may receive a UAC prompt requiring you to confirm this change.

Why You Should Never Turn Off UAC

If you want to keep the security of your system at decent levels, you should never turn off UAC. When you disable it, everything and everyone can make system changes without your consent. This makes it easier for all kinds of malware to infect and take control of your system. It doesn’t matter whether you have a security suite or antivirus installed or third-party antivirus, basic common-sense measures like having UAC turned on make a big difference in keeping your devices safe from harm.

We have noticed that some users disable UAC prior to setting up their Windows devices and installing third-party software on them. They keep it disabled while installing all the software they will use and enable it when done installing everything, so that they don’t have to deal with so many UAC prompts. Unfortunately this causes problems with some desktop applications. They may fail to work after you enable UAC. This happens because, when UAC is disabled, the virtualization techniques UAC uses for your applications are inactive. This means that certain user settings and files are installed in a different place and when you turn on UAC, applications stop working because they should be placed elsewhere.

Therefore, whatever you do, do not turn off UAC completely!

Coming up next …

In the next lesson you will learn about Windows Defender, what this tool can do in Windows 7 and Windows 8.x, what’s different about it in these operating systems and how it can be used to increase the security of your system.