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8 Is Enough: Keeping the PC Safe

In using the Windows 8 Developer Preview day-to-day, things have settled into a consistent lull and because of the lack of Metro-style apps--which will be partially rectified by the late February beta opening of the Windows Store--I'm mostly using Windows 8 as if it were Windows 7, sticking to the desktop for most work. But one thing that crops up from time to time is a fun reminder that Windows 8 isn't Windows 7; it's a better Windows. And part of being better means keeping you more secure, and keeping the PC safe from electronic attack.

The reminder I see looks like this.


This pop-up, which looks a lot like a Metro-style UI and yet appears on top of the desktop, is the visual component of Smart Screen, which in Windows 8 has been extended to the Windows Explorer shell. This key change--previously, Smart Screen was an Internet Explorer feature--means that Windows can keep you safe from downloaded files no matter which browser you use.

Smart Screen is just one of many security technologies in Windows 8. And of course, Windows 8 includes the excellent security features found in its predecessor as a base. These include such proactive tools and technologies as Windows Defender anti-spyware, Windows Update and automatic updating, User Account Control, Windows Firewall, a hardened web browser with numerous security features, Action Center, Network Access Protection, Address Layout Randomization (ASLR), Data Execution Prevention (DEP), and more.

Looks pretty solid, eh? The only issue is that Windows, to date, hasn't been completely secure out of the box. That's because it doesn't ship with anti-virus, though one might argue (as Microsoft has) that this isn't a huge issue since most copies of Windows are sold with new PCs that do include anti-virus. But as I noted in Windows 7 Secrets, you can secure Windows 7 in just two steps: First, enable automatic updating and, second, install an antivirus solution. My current recommendation is Microsoft Security Essentials, which is free and works well.

But what does Windows 8 add to this exhaustive list?

A lot.

In addition to the aforementioned Smart Screen functionality, Microsoft is finally taking that one step I've been asking about for years: Its integrating anti-virus directly into Windows. This functionality will thus be included in the version of Windows Defender that ships with the OS, so it's essentially the same as Microsoft Security Essentials today, just built-in. (Defender also works at boot time, protecting your PC when it's booting.)

PCs with newer Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI)-type firmware (a modern replacement for the BIOS) will also be able to take advantage of new features like Secure Boot, which validates the system components before Windows 8 boots to ensure that the PC hasn't been compromised in some way.

Windows 8 will include new centralized management system for passwords, for both the Internet and the local network. And it will allow users to logon via a picture/gesture combination or using a numeric PIN, as they do with a smart phone.

Look specifically at the new Metro-style apps that will be enabled by the new Windows Runtime, and more improvements can be seen. These apps will be curated and certified by Microsoft and only sold and provided through the secure Windows Store. They will be sandboxed from each other and from the OS to ensure that no cross-app contamination can occur. They will expose features and functionality via a manifest, and the user must explicitly to agree to allow even those features before the app can even be installed. And if a widespread problem is still somehow found, Microsoft can remove the errant app from users' PCs automatically, saving them from data or privacy exploits.

I'm looking forward to seeing those revolutionary Metro-style security capabilities in action. But for now, I look at Windows 8, even in this early Developer Preview form, as Windows 7 on Steroids. It provides an evolution of the security features Microsoft's been offering for years, yes, but the Metro-specific functionality is going to put this OS over the top. Window is already very secure today. But it's about to get a lot more secure. And that's frankly pretty amazing.

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