Friday, March 27, 2009

Harm Reduction in Windows 7

Guest mode … kid mode … whatever you want to call it, is brilliant.

But more than that, it’s an interesting admission that (1) you can’t fight the power of the darknet and (2) you might as well empower people to behave in a way that minimizes the damage, whether or not you approve of what they’re doing.

If I had a dollar for every individual who ever swore they never go near warez or pr0n or questionable media downloads, and ended up with a mucked up machine … or worse, a machine that transmits their passwords and SSN to a bad guy …

Even with an older OS, like XP, one can achieve a fair degree of isolation and protection by using a patched up Firefox or Chrome on top of a plain user (not admin) account. There are still holes by design; e.g., a user could fill up the hard drive or install software that persists in certain places. And I’m sure there are serious security flaws that allow code downloaded as user to escalate itself to admin … perhaps even coming from a “drive-by” Javascript source via Firefox/Chrome … but such threats seem to be pretty darned rare if everything is patched up and prophylactic protections are applied (e.g. Spyware S&D’s “immunization”).

Guest mode (and IE 8 “In Private” browsing) appears to close many of the remaining holes.

What we need now is an education campaign to convince people to segregate their online activities. But besides not knowing how to create these low-privilege accounts, a lot of people I know refuse to admit they ever visit the darknet. Or the visits are rare and they “hope for the best.”

Let’s pre-configure – by default -- a second account for ever power user (or admin) on a machine. At login time, offer the guest (more protected) account along with some description of when it might be a good idea to use it.

I’m not sure the best way to label the buttons, because it’s a bit hard to explain how the more secure, more protected mode is paradoxically for the more anonymous, more dangerous behavior; while the “less protected” mode is for normal operation which might involve vital personal data. I’ll let the UX wizards sort this part out.

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