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Managing Client Protection : Using Windows Defender (part 2)

5/3/2013 6:05:02 PM

2. Windows Defender Alert Levels

When Windows Defender detects potentially malicious software, it assigns one of the following alert levels to it:

  • Severe Assigned to potentially unwanted software that can severely affect your computer or compromise your privacy. You should always remove this software.

  • High Similar to the severe rating, but slightly less damaging. You should always remove this software.

  • Medium Assigned to potentially unwanted software that might compromise your privacy, affect your computer’s performance, or display advertising. In some cases, software classified as a medium alert level might have legitimate uses. Evaluate the software before allowing it to be installed.

  • Low Assigned to potentially unwanted software that might collect information about you or your computer or change how your computer works, but operates in agreement with licensing terms displayed when you installed the software. This software is typically benign, but might be installed without the user’s knowledge. For example, remote control software might be classified as a Low alert level, because it could be used legitimately, or it might be used by an attacker to control a computer without the owner’s knowledge.

  • Not yet classified Programs that haven’t yet been analyzed. If you discover software that is not yet classified, you can submit it directly to Microsoft to be considered for classification. For more information, visit http://www.microsoft.com/athome/security/spyware/software/support/reportspyware.mspx.

3. Understanding Microsoft SpyNet

Microsoft’s goal is to create definitions for all qualifying software. However, hundreds of new malware applications are created and distributed every day. Because of the rapid pace of newly released software, users can possibly encounter malware that Microsoft has not yet classified. In these cases, Windows Defender should still warn the user if the malware takes a potentially malicious action such as configuring itself to start automatically each time the computer is restarted.

To help users determine whether to allow application changes (detected by real-time protection) when prompted, Windows Defender contacts Microsoft SpyNet to determine how other users have responded when prompted about the same software. If the change is part of a desired software installation, most users will have approved the change, and Windows Defender can use the feedback from SpyNet when informing the user about the change. If the change is unexpected (as it would be for most unwanted software), most users will not approve the change.

Two levels of SpyNet participation are available:

  • Basic Windows Defender sends only basic information to Microsoft, including where the software came from (such as the specific URL) and whether the user or Windows Defender allowed or blocked the item. With basic membership, Windows Defender does not alert users if it detects software or changes made by software that has not yet been analyzed for risks. While personal information might possibly be sent to Microsoft with either basic or advanced SpyNet membership, Microsoft will not use this information to identify or contact the user.

  • Advanced Advanced SpyNet membership is intended for users who have an understanding of the inner workings of the operating system and might be able to evaluate whether the changes an application is making are malicious. The key difference between basic and advanced membership is that with advanced membership, Windows Defender will alert users when it detects software or changes that have not yet been analyzed for risks. Additionally, advanced membership sends additional information to SpyNet, including the location of the software on the local computer, file names, how the software operates, and how it has affected the computer.

In addition to providing feedback to users about unknown software, SpyNet is also a valuable resource to Microsoft when identifying new malware. Microsoft analyzes information in SpyNet to create new definitions. In turn, this helps slow the spread of potentially unwanted software.

3. Configuring Windows Defender Using Group Policy

You can configure some aspects of Windows Defender using Group Policy settings. Windows Defender Group Policy settings are located in Computer Configuration\Administrative Templates\Windows Components\Windows Defender. From that node, you can configure the following settings:

  • Turn On Definition Updates Through Both WSUS And Windows Update Enabled by default, this setting configured Windows Defender to check Windows Update when a WSUS server is not available locally. This can help ensure that mobile clients, who might not regularly connect to your local network, can stay up to date on malware definitions. If you disable this setting, Windows Defender only checks for updates using the setting defined for the Automatic Updates client—either an internal WSUS server or Windows Update.

    Direct from the Source: Malware Analysis

    Keeping up to date with the current malware definitions can help protect your computer from harmful or potentially unwanted software. Microsoft has taken several steps to create definition updates, including gathering new samples of suspicious files, observing and testing the samples, and performing a deep analysis. If we determine that the sample does not follow our criteria, its alert level is determined and the software is added to the software definitions and released to customers.

    For more information, visit http://www.microsoft.com/athome/security/spyware/software/msft/analysis.mspx.

    Sterling Reasor, Program Manager

    Windows Defender

  • Check For New Signatures Before Scheduled Scans Disabled by default, you can enable this setting to cause Windows Defender to always check for updates prior to a scan. This helps ensure that Windows Defender has the most up-to-date signatures. When you disable this setting, Windows Defender still downloads updates on a regular basis, but will not necessarily check immediately prior to a scan.

  • Turn Off Windows Defender Enable this setting to turn off Windows Defender Real-Time Protection and to remove any scheduled scans. You should only enable this setting if you are using different anti-malware software. If Windows Defender is turned off, users can still manually run the tool to scan for potentially unwanted software.

  • Turn Off Real-Time Protection Prompts For Unknown Detection If you enable this policy setting, Windows Defender does not prompt users to allow or block unknown activity. If you disable or do not configure this policy setting, by default Windows Defender prompts users to allow or block unknown activity on the computer.

  • Enable Logging Known Good Detections By default, Windows Defender only adds an event to the Event Log when it detects a potentially malicious file. If you enable this setting (it is disabled by default), Windows Defender will also log files that it determines are not a problem. You should only enable this setting if you are troubleshooting a problem. In fact, enabling this setting will cause a large number of events to be added to the computer’s event log, causing performance problems.

  • Enable Logging Unknown Detection Enabled by default, this setting configures Windows Defender to add events to the Event Log when it finds a potentially malicious file during Real-Time Protection. Disable this setting if you do not find the events useful.

  • Download Entire Signature Set By default, this setting is disabled, which causes Windows Defender to download only incremental signature updates (in other words, just the new signatures since it downloaded them last). If you enable this setting, Windows Defender will download the full signature set, which could be very large. Because downloading the full signature set will use more network bandwidth, you should only enable this setting when troubleshooting a problem with signatures.

  • Configure Microsoft SpyNet Reporting Microsoft SpyNet is the online community that helps users choose how to respond to potential spyware threats that Microsoft has not yet classified by showing users how other members have responded to an alert. When enabled and set to Basic or Advanced, Windows Defender will display information about how other users responded to a potential threat. When enabled and set to Basic, Windows Defender will also submit a small amount of information about the potentially malicious files on the user’s computer. When set to Advanced, Windows Defender will send more detailed information. If you enable this setting and set it to No Membership, SpyNet will not be used, and the user will not be able to change the setting. If you leave this setting Disabled (the default), SpyNet will not be used unless the user changes the setting on his local computer.

Windows Defender Group Policy settings are defined in WindowsDefender.admx, which is included with Windows Vista. 

4. Configuring Windows Defender on a Single Computer

Besides the settings that you can configure by using Group Policy, Windows Defender includes many settings that you can only configure by using the Windows Defender Options page on a local computer. To open the Options page, launch Windows Defender, click Tools, and then click Options. Some of the settings you can configure from this page include:

  • Frequency and time of automatic scans

  • Which security agents are automatically scanned

  • Specific files and folders to be excluded from scans

  • Whether non-administrators can run Windows Defender

Because you cannot easily configure these settings with Group Policy settings, Windows Defender might not be the right choice for enterprise spyware control.

5. Windows Defender Tools

Windows Defender includes several useful tools that you can access by clicking Tools on the Windows Defender toolbar:

  • Software Explorer It’s very difficult to track software installed on a computer because it can be installed in many different places. For example, startup programs can be installed as services, referenced in several different registry locations, or added to a user’s (or all users’) Startup group. Software Explorer, as shown in Figure 3, allows you to browse and disable applications installed on your computer. You can also use Software Explorer to view and terminate running processes (much like Task Manager), to browse running processes that are currently networked, and to browse Winsock Service Providers.

    Figure 3. You can centrally manage startup applications with Software Explorer.
  • Allowed Items Use the Allowed Items tool in Windows Defender to view items that an administrator has configured as safe. Windows Defender will not alert the user about changes made by items on this list.

  • Quarantined Items Use the Quarantined Items tool in Windows Defender to view items that an administrator has configured as unsafe. If you are having a problem installing an application, it’s possible that it has been mistakenly added to the Quarantined Items list. You need administrative privileges to manage this list.

  • History Available by clicking History on the Windows Defender toolbar, this tool displays changes that Windows Defender either allowed or blocked, and whether Windows Defender prompted the user for approval. If you are experiencing problems installing an application or making system changes, you should check the history, as shown in Figure 4, to determine if Windows Defender might be involved.

    Figure 4. Windows Defender History shows changes that have been permitted or blocked.

6. How to Determine if a Computer Is Infected with Spyware

Several signs indicate whether a computer is infected with spyware. You should train users in your environment to notice these changes and call your support center if they suspect a malware infection:

  • A new, unexpected application appears.

  • Unexpected icons appear in the system tray.

  • Unexpected notifications appear near the system tray.

  • The web browser home page, default search engine, or favorites change.

  • The mouse pointer changes.

  • New toolbars appear, especially in web browsers.

  • The web browser displays additional advertisements when visiting a webpage, or pop-up advertisements appear when the user is not using the web.

  • When the user visits a webpage, he is redirected to a completely different webpage.

  • The computer runs more slowly than usual. This can be caused by many different problems; however, malware is one of the most common causes.

Some malware might not have any noticeable symptoms, but it still might compromise private information. For best results, run Windows Defender real-time protection with daily quick scans.

7. Best Practices for Using Windows Defender

To receive the security benefits of Windows Defender while minimizing the costs, follow these best practices:

  • Teach users how malware works and the problems that malware can cause. In particular, focus on teaching users to avoid being tricked into installing malware by social engineering attacks.

  • Before deploying Windows Vista, test all applications with Windows Defender enabled to ensure that Windows Defender does not alert users to normal changes the application might make. If a legitimate application does cause warnings, add the application to the Windows Defender allowed list.

  • Change the scheduled scan time to meet the needs of your business. By default, Windows Defender scans at 2 A.M. If third-shift staff uses computers overnight, you might want to find a better time to perform the scan. If users turn off their computers when they are not in the office, you should schedule the scan to occur during the day. While the automatic quick scan can slow down computer performance, it typically takes fewer than 10 minutes, and users can continue working. Any performance cost is typically outweighed by the security benefits.

  • Use WSUS to manage and distribute signature updates.

  • Use antivirus software with Windows Defender. Alternatively, you might disable Windows Defender completely and use client-security software that provides both antispyware and antivirus functionality.

  • Do not deploy Windows Defender in enterprises. Instead, use Microsoft Forefront Client Security or a third-party client-security suite that can be more easily managed in enterprise environments.

8. How to Troubleshoot Problems with Unwanted Software

If a malware infection is found during a scan, Windows Defender will prompt the user to choose how to respond. Typically, the user should allow Windows Defender to attempt to remove the malware.

A malware infection is rarely a single application; most successful malware infections automatically install several, even dozens, of malicious applications. Some of those applications might be straightforward to remove. However, if even a single malicious application remains, that remaining malware application might continue to install other malware applications.

If you detect a malware problem, follow these steps to troubleshoot it:

Perform a quick scan, and remove any potentially malicious applications. Then, immediately perform a full scan, and remove any additional potentially malicious software. The full scan can take many hours to run. Windows Defender will probably need to restart Windows Vista.

If the malware has made changes to Internet Explorer, such as adding unwanted add-ons or changing the home page.

Run antivirus scans on your computer. Often, spyware might install software that is classified as a virus, or the vulnerability exploited by spyware might also be exploited by a virus. Window Defender cannot detect or remove viruses. Remove any viruses installed on the computer.

If you still see signs of malware, install an additional antispyware and antivirus application. With complicated infections, a single anti-malware tool might not be able to completely remove the infection. Your chances of removing all traces of malware increase by using multiple applications, but you should not configure multiple applications to provide real-time protection.

If problems persists, shut down the computer, and use the Startup Repair tool to perform a System Restore. Restore the computer to a date prior to the malware infection. System Restore will typically remove any startup settings that cause malware applications to run, but it will not remove the executable files themselves. Use this only as a last resort: Although System Restore will not remove a user’s personal files, it can cause problems with recently installed or configured applications.

These steps will resolve the vast majority of malware problems. However, once malware has run on a computer, you can never be certain that the software is completely removed. In particular, malware known as root kits can install themselves in such a way that they are undetectable on a computer. In these circumstances, the only sure way to remove the malicious software is to reformat the hard disk, reinstall Windows Vista, and then restore user files using a backup created prior to the infection.

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