Microsoft Vista's Endless Security Warnings

Microsoft Vista's Endless Security Warnings.

Paul Thurrott has posted an excellent essay on the problems with Windows Vista. Most interesting to me is how they implement UAP (User Account Protection):

Modern operating systems like Linux and Mac OS X operate under a security model where even administrative users don't get full access to certain features unless they provide an in-place logon before performing any task that might harm the system. This type of security model protects users from themselves, and it is something that Microsoft should have added to Windows years and years ago.

Here's the good news. In Windows Vista, Microsoft is indeed moving to this kind of security model. The feature is called User Account Protection (UAP) and, as you might expect, it prevents even administrative users from performing potentially dangerous tasks without first providing security credentials, thus ensuring that the user understands what they're doing before making a critical mistake. It sounds like a good system. But this is Microsoft, we're talking about here. They completely botched UAP.

The bad news, then, is that UAP is a sad, sad joke. It's the most annoying feature that Microsoft has ever added to any software product, and yes, that includes that ridiculous Clippy character from older Office versions. The problem with UAP is that it throws up an unbelievable number of warning dialogs for even the simplest of tasks. That these dialogs pop up repeatedly for the same action would be comical if it weren't so amazingly frustrating. It would be hilarious if it weren't going to affect hundreds of millions of people in a few short months. It is, in fact, almost criminal in its insidiousness.

Let's look a typical example. One of the first things I do whenever I install a new Windows version is download and install Mozilla Firefox. If we forget, for a moment, the number of warning dialogs we get during the download and install process (including a brazen security warning from Windows Firewall for which Microsoft should be chastised), let's just examine one crucial, often overlooked issue. Once Firefox is installed, there are two icons on my Desktop I'd like to remove: The Setup application itself and a shortcut to Firefox. So I select both icons and drag them to the Recycle Bin. Simple, right?

Wrong. Here's what you have to go through to actually delete those files in Windows Vista. First, you get a File Access Denied dialog (Figure) explaining that you don't, in fact, have permission to delete a … shortcut?? To an application you just installed??? Seriously?

OK, fine. You can click a Continue button to “complete this operation.” But that doesn't complete anything. It just clears the desktop for the next dialog, which is a Windows Security window (Figure). Here, you need to give your permission to continue something opaquely called a “File Operation.” Click Allow, and you're done. Hey, that's not too bad, right? Just two dialogs to read, understand, and then respond correctly to. What's the big deal?

What if you're doing something a bit more complicated? Well, lucky you, the dialogs stack right up, one after the other, in a seemingly never-ending display of stupidity. Indeed, sometimes you'll find yourself unable to do certain things for no good reason, and you click Allow buttons until you're blue in the face. It will never stop bothering you, unless you agree to stop your silliness and leave that file on the desktop where it belongs. Mark my words, this will happen to you. And you will hate it.

The problem with lots of warning dialog boxes is that they don't provide security. Users stop reading them. They think of them as annoyances, as an extra click required to get a feature to work. Clicking through gets embedded into muscle memory, and when it actually matters the user won't even realize it.

Jeff Atwood says the same thing:

The problem with the Security Through Endless Warning Dialogs school of thought is that it doesn't work. All those earnest warning dialogs eventually blend together into a giant “click here to get work done” button that nobody bothers to read any more. The operating system cries wolf so much that when a real wolf– in the form of a virus or malware– rolls around, you'll mindlessly allow it access to whatever it wants, just out of habit.

So does Rick Strahl:

Then there are the security dialogs. Ah yes, now we're making progress: Ask users on EVERY program you launch that isn't signed whether they want to elevate permissions. Uh huh, this is going to work REAL WELL. We know how well that worked with unsigned ActiveX controls in Internet Explorer ­ so well that even Microsoft isn't signing most of its own ActiveX controls. Give too many warnings that are not quite reasonable and people will never read the dialogs and just click them anyway… I know I started doing that in the short use I've had on Vista.

These dialog boxes are not security for the user, they're CYA security from the user. When some piece of malware trashes your system, Microsoft can say: “You gave the program permission to do that; it's not our fault.”

Warning dialog boxes are only effective if the user has the ability to make intelligent decisions about the warnings. If the user cannot do that, they're just annoyances. And they're annoyances that don't improve security.  [Schneier on Security]

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