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Top 10 Steps to Greater Security in Windows XP Professional

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Despite its many strengths, there are steps you should take to ensure that Windows XP stays secure in your company. Learn the top 10 security issues you need to plan for if you implement Windows XP Professional as your corporate-wide operating system.
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There's ample evidence that as a personal operating system, Windows XP Professional makes sense, especially for those working with digital media, the Internet, or higher-performance applications. Don't confuse individual performance on an operating system with the larger and more expensive concept of putting Windows XP Professional on thousands of desktops throughout your organization.

Now That It's Shipping, Does it Make Sense as a Corporate Standard?

Similar to the way the highly personalized features of Windows XP can impact performance on an individual level, the definition of security features will have an immediate and noticeable difference in how XP performs company-wide. Presented here are the top 10 steps that need to be taken to ensure that Windows XP Professional stays secure in your company. It's so obvious that every user account needs to have a username and password that it's not on the list below, but this is the best place to start when taking steps for greater security for all systems on your network.

1. Go with the NTFS File System

Most companies ignore this security step because the majority of workstations ship with the FAT file system enabled. Following the path of least resistance, and citing that the majority of applications are actually based on the Win16-API and therefore are best performing on the FAT file system, many administrators choose not to upgrade their workstations to the NTFS file system. In reality, this is one of the simplest and most effective steps any administrator can take to make sure their systems are secure. Figure 1 shows an example of how to use the command line to change a disk's file system.

Figure 5Figure 1 Using the Command Prompt to change the file system from FAT to NTFS.

2. Lack of Focus on Security Zones

Just as many system administrators are content to stay with the FAT file system, there are those that don't really question the concept of security zones. As can be seen from articles earlier in this series, the role of security zones is critical for the security of all systems on your network. Specifically, the Logon parameter needs to be set to at least Medium (if not High), depending on the configuration of your network. Be sure to take a closer look at the configuration of your security zones and their configurations to ensure that your entire network is secured.

3. Configure Remote Assistance to Always Require a Password

A little-known back door into Windows XP Professional's desktops is the fact that invitations can be sent directly to servers outside your company. You can take a huge step toward greater security around these invitations by making sure that all Remote Access configurations in your company include a password. That way, invitations for Remote Assistance sent to servers outside your company cannot be acted upon.

4. Look at Remote Assistance as Your Virtual Assistant for Support and Training

The biggest time drain that administrators face is trying to be all things to all people. Don't even think about being at everyone's desktop when you are needed; that's the role of the support staff. You can also use the Remote Assistant to go to users who may have called and said they had a problem; or conversely, you can train your users to send e-mails to remoteassistance@yourcompany.com to get queries organized that are generated from your support base. Go back and see the article on this earlier in the series to get an idea of the ancillary security issues that surround using Remote Assistance.

5. Select Disable the Security Page from the Security Zone Options

With systems in which there are many different users who are working on a given system, you need to entirely disable Security Zone permissions. This makes sense in high traffic areas because you have no control over which options are selected, and by whom. To get to the Disable the Security Page option, go to the Internet Zones page, and select the Disable the Security Page option. This gets all Zone settings out of view from users. You can quickly get to this command by following the path: User Configuration\Administrative Templates\Windows Components\Internet Explorer\Internet Control Panel.

6. Always Configure Windows XP's Internet Connection Firewall (ICF)

If you have connected directly to the Internet, always configure Windows XP's Internet Connection Firewall (ICF). Think of setting this as added protection for your system, even if you also have a software firewall. If you are a system administrator, setting the ICF may conflict with the firewall or proxy server already in place. Also, the ICF has been known to cause problems when connected to Windows 20000 or XP domain controllers, DHCP servers, DNS servers, gateways, or static IP addresses.

7. Set Global System Properties On All Systems with Password Protection On the My Documents Folder

The ability of outsiders to get complete access to all files on internal systems has proven to be through an unprotected My Documents folder. You should also set password protection on My Network because having this unprotected with a password has proven to be a security breach in the first networks running Windows XP Professional.

8. Be Sure to Delete User Accounts Once Work has Been Completed

Even if you are using Guest Groups to provide access to subcontractors and temporary workers at your company, be sure to delete the user accounts after the work is done. You can't delete the Guests Group because it is hard-coded into Windows XP Professional. You can, however, delete each account within this group. Be sure to delete all guest accounts after temp and contract workers leave your company. One company didn't pay attention to this, so it had a temp reading company e-mail a full year after he left. The result was that a new product introduction was leaked to the press four weeks early.

9. Be Careful with Deny Permissions!

When setting properties by group for what can and cannot be used and viewed, make sure not to do a blanket Deny on all groups and accounts. More than one system administrator has locked themselves out of the network by selecting Deny for all accounts and all groups.

10. Set Up a Separate Account In the Power Users Group

In addition to your Administrator account, set up a separate account for yourself in the Power Users group The most common virus that hits firewalls is the Trojan Horse, which is a virus that can communicate the administrator-level password and even define where system resources are throughout your company after it is loaded into your system. Setting up an account in the Power Users group and setting Limited permissions on that account, you can protect yourself from Trojan Horses and other viruses like it. This is the best account in which to spend the majority of your time for the more routine tasks. If you need to get back into the Administrator login, simply select Log Off and then select Switch User.

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