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Microsoft: UAC not a security feature

For those who thought the User Account Control (UAC) feature introduced in Windows Vista was intended to set security boundaries, Microsoft has made a clarification: it isn’t.

The message is attracting criticism from security experts, one of whom said it made features such as UAC seem like nothing more than a “joke”.

The most direct communication about UAC to date came on Monday from Mark Russinovich, a Technical Fellow in Microsoft’s Platform and Services Division, who joined the company when it bought Russinovich’s Winternals Software. Russinovich is a noted developer of Windows utilities and is credited with being the first to discover the rootkit in Sony BMG’s copy-protection software.

In a Microsoft TechNet blog post, Russinovich explained that Vista features such as UAC or Protected Mode Internet Explorer that are dependent on limited user privileges – which Microsoft calls Integrity Levels (ILs) – are designed to allow some IL breaches.

“Vista makes tradeoffs between security and convenience, and both UAC and Protected Mode IE have design choices that required paths to be opened in the IL wall for application compatibility and ease of use,” he wrote.

Because the boundaries defined by UAC and Protected Mode IE are designed to be porous, they can’t really be considered security barriers, he said. “Neither UAC elevations nor Protected Mode IE define new Windows security boundaries,” Russinovich wrote. “Because elevations and ILs don’t define a security boundary, potential avenues of attack, regardless of ease or scope, are not security bugs.”

He said Microsoft had communicated this in the past, but that the point needed reiterating.

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Microsoft, Windows Vista, UAC

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