Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10 may prove to be Microsoft's most secure OS and browser to date. The company began repairing its dismal reputation for security with Windows 7; this latest version takes significant steps to provide a more secure operating environment for PCs. Our advice? Upgrade desktops and laptops as soon as you can, especially if you're among the 20% of respondents to our latest InformationWeek Windows 8 Survey still clinging to Windows XP--a bad plan for multiple reasons.
Leading the list of improvements driving us to make this recommendation: enhanced application controls via a platform named AppContainer, in which Microsoft borrows a page from the mobile OS security playbook by forcing application developers to explicitly define what an app is allowed to do. Microsoft also introduces or enhances other security features, including a robust anti-malware package that comes standard with the OS--and must be giving antivirus vendors agita--and a new feature to make passwords easier to remember but harder for attackers to crack.
However, the most significant security change we see in Windows 8 is not so much the actual features; it's Microsoft's mindset. The Win 8 security paradigm is built around applications, particularly those that run in browsers. To that end, Internet Explorer 10 for Windows 8 includes some significant security upgrades, a welcome development because most attacks that target users come from the Web.
Of particular note is AppContainer, an aggressive application permission configuration feature introduced in IE10. AppContainer functions similarly to application sandboxing on mobile operating systems, such as iOS and Android. Under AppContainer, a developer must produce a manifest file that links directly to the application and defines what it can and cannot do. For instance, a developer might indicate on a manifest that an application can initiate outbound connections to the Internet, but it can't receive an incoming connection. If that application is subsequently exploited, and the exploit instructs the application to open a port for an inbound communication, the Windows 8 kernel will prevent the port from opening, thus limiting potential damage.
There are many other permissions within the AppContainer model, including the ability to instruct that an app may talk only to the Internet and not the local network, or vice versa, or decide which Windows 8 libraries, such as music, videos, pictures, or even removable storage, the app can access. We expect Microsoft to add more options for AppContainer in subsequent releases and service packs.
Download the Sept. 24, 2012, issue of InformationWeek