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Question: Why Does Windows Vista Have That Security WIndow?


I have Windows Vista. Can you explain why it does that thing where the screen goes black and a message pops up asking my approval to do something? And please keep it simple - I'm a chemistry guy, not a computer guy.



Hi P,

This is a question a lot of people are asking, and (as I mentioned in a previous post), it even spawned one very funny Mac vs. PC advertisement. I'll do my best to explain it in simple terms.

Let's say you're in a chem lab, and all your chemicals are in a locked cabinet. In the top drawers of the cabinet you keep chemicals that are fine for normal, everyday use, and are not harmful or dangerous. In the bottom drawer you keep things like nitroglycerine, sulfuric acid, and other chemicals which need to be treated with caution.

The cabinet is kept locked, but a variety of people who might need chemicals are given keys to the cabinet. But you want to make sure that people exercise caution whenever they open the bottom drawer, so you have a separate lock for that drawer, which has its own key. Anyone who wants to get in there has to go get the other key in order to get into that bottom drawer. And you might even make it so they have to get the key directly from you.

Well, in a way, that's how Vista is set up. There are things that people can do to a computer that aren't at all hazardous. Those are the normal everyday things like typing emails, drawing pictures, listening to music, doing finances, etc. But there are some things that are potentially hazardous to your computer, and not everyone should be able to get into those. Those include installing software, changing the system's settings, as well as some other things. They are "hazardous" because if done improperly they could render your computer inoperable, or open it up to security risks and hack attacks.

These are referred to as "Administrative functions" - things that only an administrator should be allowed to do.

Now, Microsoft knows that most of us are too lazy to set up one administrative account, and the others not administrators (they know us well, don't they?) so in previous iterations of the Windows operating system, everyone was an administrator all the time (unless you specifically told Windows not to work that way). This meant that anyone, at any time, could get into "the bottom drawer" without even realizing that they were getting into potentially hazardous stuff. In essence, one key fit all the drawers.

Microsoft didn't like this, and I can't blame them, since 90% of all tech issues are related to people downloading and installing spyware and viruses, without even realizing what they're doing. But they also knew that they weren't going to convince us that it is wise to create a separate lock for "administrative functions", so they created a "two lock" system by which everyone has a key that fits the top drawer, but a different key is required for the bottom drawer.

So when the computer screen fades to black and then pops up that message, what it's really saying is: "You're trying to access dangerous stuff here, and your normal key won't fit - do you want to use your 'administrator' key?" Depending on how your computer is set up, it might even ask you for an administrator password which you have to supply before continuing.

That's a rough explanation, trying to keep it as simple as possible!

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