Security and Windows 8: Keeping Your PC Safe (part 2) - Windows SmartScreen, Using Windows SmartScreen, Action Center Improvements

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Windows SmartScreen

Microsoft added an interesting and useful security feature to Internet Explorer 9 called SmartScreen that helps guard your PC against malicious software downloads. IE 9’s SmartScreen feature works very well, but of course it can’t help you if you use a different browser, such as Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, or if you download a malicious file through another means, such as an e-mail application or USB storage device.

SmartScreen uses a Microsoft hosted “reputation” service that uses actual user feedback to help determine whether files are trustworthy. So that means you can help make the service more useful for everyone simply by using this feature.

To help protect you against malicious software more globally, Windows 8 includes a special version of SmartScreen, called Windows SmartScreen, which protects the filesystem against malicious files, no matter where they come from. Windows SmartScreen works exactly like IE 9’s SmartScreen feature, meaning it utilizes both holistic sensing technologies and an Internet-hosted service to determine whether files are malicious or at least suspected of being so.

Configuring Windows SmartScreen

To configure Windows SmartScreen, you’ll need to launch Action Center, which is available via the system tray (it’s the icon that resembles a cute little white flag) or through Start Search.

Using the Action Center route, you’ll see an option on the left of the window called Change Windows Start Screen settings. Click this option to display the window shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Windows SmartScreen settings


We recommend using the default setting, which is “Get administrator approval before running an unrecognized app from the Internet.” Unless you’re regularly hanging out in torrent sites or other gray areas of the Interwebs, you’ll find this isn’t too annoying.

Using Windows SmartScreen

When Windows SmartScreen fires up, you’ll know it: The full-screen notification shown in Figure 4 displays, interrupting whatever you were doing.

Figure 4: Windows SmartScreen notifications are a bit hard to miss.


As with any full-screen notification, you’ll want to deal with this before proceeding. And while SmartScreen can certainly suffer from false positives, our advice is to think very carefully before just dismissing this. It’s warning you for a reason.

Action Center Improvements

If you’re familiar with Action Center from Windows 7, you know that it’s an improved version of the Security Center that dates all the way back to Windows XP with Service Pack 2. In Windows 8, Action Center carries forward largely unchanged in that it still performs the same function of tracking security and troubleshooting items in the OS and popping up notifications when something goes wrong.

What’s changed is that Action Center now tracks far more items than it did in Windows 7. And while many of the items it tracks are, as you might expect, related to new features in Windows 8, some aren’t. It’s just fleshed out better.

In Windows 8, Action Center now tracks these additional items:

  • Windows SmartScreen: This security feature, described earlier, debuted in Windows 8 and provides anti-malware protection directly through the Windows filesystem.
  • Windows activation: While activation is hardly new to Windows 8, Microsoft has created an Action Center experience in this release that tracks whether your copy of Windows is activated, and thus valid. You can see this interface in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Windows is activated

  • Microsoft account: The ability to sign in to Windows 8 with a Microsoft account is obviously new to this version of the OS, but the underlying technology that Action Center is actually tracking here is whether your account is working properly and syncing settings from the PC to SkyDrive (and thus to other PCs) and vice versa.
  • Automatic maintenance: Like previous Windows versions, Windows 8 will automatically run a scheduled maintenance routine at a set time, 3:00 a.m. What’s changed in Windows 8 is that this activity is now tracked by Action Center to ensure that it completes successfully. But you can use the Start maintenance link to run a manual check or Change maintenance settings to configure a new time.
  • HomeGroup: Action Center now checks to see whether you’re part of a homegroup. This is important because signing in with a Microsoft account breaks the normal workgroup-style home network sharing we used to use.
  • File History: The new File History feature works with the Push Button Reset functionality in Windows 8 to create a more flexible way of restoring lost data than the old method, a combination of Previous Files (which no one even knew existed) and Windows Backup (which was ponderous and slow).
  • Drive status: Action Center now checks to see whether all of the fixed disks attached to your computer are working properly.

When Action Center detects an issue, it provides notifications via its system tray icon. Clicking these, or the associated warnings that appear in the Action Center control panel, brings you to the user interface you need to mitigate the issue. For example, as part of its overall system performance and reliability tracking, Action Center could eventually warn you to disable app[lication]s to help improve performance. This slightly off-base recommendation—it really means, “disable startup applications to improve boot-time performance” and has nothing to do with Metro-style apps—links to the Task Manager. In Windows 8, the Task Manager now provides a Startup tab that lets you enable and disable applications (but not Metro-style apps) that are configured to run at boot time. This can be seen in Figure 6.

But Wait, There’s More

In addition to the features discussed previously, Microsoft has improved a number of security features that debuted in previous Windows versions, too. Most of the features don’t require any user interaction. They simply work in the background, ensuring that Windows 8 is as secure as it can be.

Figure 6: Task Manager now helps you disable boot-time applications.


A small sampling includes the following:

  • Credential Manager: Windows has long included a Credential Manager interface—previously called Windows Vault—that helps you combine the usernames and passwords for the local network and for websites with your Windows user account. New to this release is that you can now tie these other sign-ins with your Microsoft account for the first time, since most people will be signing in to Windows 8 with that account type.
  • Windows kernel: The innermost part of Windows has been shored up with protection technologies that were curiously available only to other Windows components in previous OS versions.
  • ASLR: Since Windows Vista, Windows has employed a technique called address space layout randomization (ASLR) to randomly load code and data into different memory addresses at run time, cutting down on an entire class of memory-based attacks. In Windows 8, ASLR has been improved with even more randomness. And it’s been extended to even more Windows components.
  • Memory: Modern Windows versions have of course always included various forms of protection against memory-based attacks, and the move to isolated Metro-style apps will help in this and other regards. But Windows 8 also includes new protections against “use after free” vulnerabilities, where rogue or malicious applications are able to examine and exploit freed up memory that still includes valuable data or other code.

There’s still more, but you get the idea. While many Windows 8 security features are in your face when required, some simply work behind the scenes, tirelessly keeping you safe without you doing a thing. What’s missing is the “security theater” that used to dog older Windows versions, where the security features were purposefully made to be overly chatty and interruptive, providing you with a sense that something good was happening.

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