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Report: Yanking Admin Rights Alleviates Threats In 92% Of Critical Microsoft Vulnerabilities

Most 2008 Microsoft vulnerability bulletins say lower system privileges help protect users against new exploits and zero-day attacks, BeyondTrust report says
Revoking administrative rights from machines can mitigate attacks against most critical Microsoft vulnerabilities and in more than half of all vulnerabilities in Microsoft software, a new report released today says.

In 92 percent of the Microsoft vulnerabilities labeled "critical" in 2008 Microsoft security vulnerability bulletins, the software giant said users with administrative rights were more likely to be affected by these vulnerabilities than were those with lesser privileges, BeyondTrust states in its report. And reducing user rights was a mitigation recommendation by Microsoft in nearly 70 percent of all of its software vulnerabilities reported last year, according to BeyondTrust.

The report also found that removing admin rights helps protect organizations from the full wrath of exploits in 94 percent of all Microsoft Office vulnerabilities, 89 percent of Internet Explorer vulnerabilities, and 53 percent of Windows vulnerabilities reported last year.

"We knew the benefit of eliminating admin rights, but we were all shocked that 92 percent of the critical vulnerabilities could be mitigated by eliminating [these] rights," says John Moyer, CEO for BeyondTrust, which sells least-privilege user management software for Windows environments.

This step can serve as a preventative or stopgap measure until patches are deployed, or while an organization is evaluating the impact of patching on its applications, for instance. Plus it buys the system administrator some time to evaluate the patch. "Most companies don't want to issue patches instantaneously [until] they test their compatibility with the systems they have," Moyer says.

Mitigation, however, is not complete protection. Scott McCarley, director of marketing for BeyondTrust, says removing admin rights will "make the exploit less severe" if it hits the machine. It depends on the vulnerability, but if an exploit lets the attacker get control of the system and it's configured with administrative rights, the machine is in danger, according to McCarley. Removing admin rights reduces the risk of this type of attack, he says.

But removing admin rights isn't exactly a no-brainer for all enterprises. Some in-house applications require that the end user have admin rights, and other handy tasks like defragmenting the hard drive require those privileges as well. "If you remove admin privileges from a user, productivity will suffer if the user is not able to run apps and get his job done," McCarley says. "There are a lot if technical changes [that occur with the] removal."

Ideally, only a small number of systems administrators have admin privileges in the organization, according to BeyondTrust, and they should only use those privileges when necessary.

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