Windows 7 Tips: Best Security Features

Do you understand and use the new security features in Windows 7? From encryption to malware fighters, here's a look at the key Windows 7 tools that keep enterprise and home PCs safe and secure.

For both enterprises and consumers, one of the big draws of Windows 7 has been its tighter security features.

Windows 7 has received mostly positive reviews for how it protects users from viruses and other security threats better than Windows XP or Vista.

[ For complete coverage on Microsoft's new Windows 7 operating system -- including hands-on reviews, video tutorials and advice on enterprise rollouts -- see CIO.com's Windows 7 Bible. ]

In addition to "under the hood" code protection in Windows 7 (like a more fortified kernel), Microsoft has also enhanced security features that IT pros and users can control and use to their advantage. Here are six Windows 7 security features that both consumers and enterprise users should know and use.

Bit Locker To Go

Microsoft added BitLocker internal hard drive encryption in Vista to protect data on stolen laptops. In Windows 7, the feature has been extended to protect external hard drives and USB thumb drives.

Called "BitLocker To Go", the feature, available only in Windows 7 Enterprise and Ultimate editions, allows external storage devices to be restricted with a passphrase set by IT before users have permission to copy data to them.

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This should give enterprises the same confidence in USB external drives that they have in regular hard-drive encryption. And with the growing amount of USB devices being used by enterprises, encrypting them has become a necessity.

Internet Explorer 8 for Safer Browsing

Although you can use Internet Explorer 8 with Windows XP or Vista, the latest version of IE comes loaded on Windows 7 machines.

Despite its recent browser market share dips, IE8 does offer improved security features for both consumers and enteprises.

For consumers, the two standouts are: InPrivate Browsing, where data about your browsing session is not stored and temporary Internet files, Web address history, cookies and passwords are all disabled; and Protected Mode, which protects you from drive-by downloads that can happen just from visiting a Web site.

Some security features in IE8 that IT pros can utilize are: SmartScreen Filter, which uses a red warning screen to prevent you from visiting unsafe sites; and ClickJack Prevention, which allows IT pros to insert a tag that blocks clickjacking, a type of cross-site scripting that uses embedded code to trick users into clicking on a link that appears normal (aka dummy button) but is concealing a hidden malicious link.

Microsoft Security Essentials

Microsoft Security Essentials, released last September, is a free program that provides basic defense against viruses, spyware, rootkits and trojans.

Though it doesn't offer the comprehensive protection that paid security suites from Symantec, McAfee and Kaspersky do, MSE has been hailed for its real-time virus protection, organized interface and low resource usage. And its price is very attractive.

MSE may not qualify as a full replacement for Norton and McAfee products, but along with Windows Defender for anti-spyware protection and Windows Firewall, both of which have been enhanced in Windows 7, MSE facilitates non-intrusive virus protection that will not bog down your computer.

AppLocker

Like BitLocker, AppLocker is an enterprise-only Windows 7 feature and its purpose is to protect users from running unauthorized software that could lead to malware infections.

For safety, Microsoft recommends that enterprises run in standard user, meaning there are no administrative rights to users at all.

But if IT managers do give administrative rights to users, AppLocker can safeguard against users running suspicious types of software. It allows IT to specify which applications can run on employees' desktops, blocking potentially harmful software and allowing the applications and programs that users need.

More control of UAC

Vista users complained mightily about the security feature UAC (user account control,) because of its frequent pop-up prompts seeking confirmation before allowing programs to open.

The resulting problem: many users just turned UAC off, making them more vulnerable to security threats.

In Windows 7, UAC has more flexibility. The number of applications and tasks that trigger UAC prompts has been reduced (no more prompts when you try to change the date and time). Also, Microsoft has dropped the "on or off only" approach of Vista. You are free to adjust UAC levels using a slider with four settings: Never notify; only notify me when programs try to make changes to my computer; always notify me; always notify me and wait for my response.

Even when the slider is set to "Never Notify" some UAC protections will still be in effect, including Protected Mode in Internet Explorer.

Backing Up Data

The Backup and Restore functionality has been given a bit of a facelift in Windows 7.

In the Backup and Restore Center — accessed by opening Control Panel and clicking "Back Up Your Computer" from the System and Security category — you can let Windows 7 choose what to back up or you can select the individual folders, libraries and drives yourself. Backups are created on a regular schedule, but you can change the schedule and you can manually create a backup at any time.

Once you set up a backup, Windows 7 keeps track of the files and folders that are new or modified and adds them to your backup. You can back up files to an external hard drive, your network, or a DVD. The Backup and Restore feature comes with all editions of Windows 7, but if you want to back up to a outside network location like your company's server, you'll need Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise or Ultimate.

Click here for more details on how to back up and restore data in Windows 7.

Shane O'Neill is a senior writer at CIO.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter at twitter.com/CIOonline.

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