Why is Windows Vista always asking for my permission: An explanation of UAC (User Account Control)

UAC (User Account Control) is the part of Windows Vista that asks you for permission.

In this post, I will go over what UAC does, how it works, the reasoning behind it, how to use your computer with UAC on, why you shouldn't turn UAC off, and answer some common questions and respond to common complaints about it.

What is UAC (User Account Control) and what does it do?

UAC mode (also known as Admin Approval Mode) is a mode of operation that (primarily) affects the way administrator accounts work.

When UAC is turned on (which it is by default), you must explicitly give permission to any program that wants to use "administrator" powers. Any program that tries to use admin powers without your permission will be denied access.

UAC is also required for other security features of Windows Vista, includingProtected Mode in Internet Explorer. Internet Explorer Protected Mode protectsyour computer from rogue web pages and other web-related vulnerabilities, includingunknown ones.

How does UAC work

When UAC mode is enabled, every program that you run will be given only "standard user" access to the system, even when you are logged in as an administrator. There are only 2 ways that a program can be "elevated" to get full admin access to the system:

  • If it automatically asks you for permission when it starts up, and you click Continue
  • If you start the program with permission by right-clicking it, then clicking Run As Administrator

A program either starts with STANDARD rights or, if you give permission, ADMINISTRATOR rights, and once the program is running it cannot change from one to the other.

If a program that you have already started with admin powers starts another program, that program will automatically be given admin powers without needing your permission. For example, if you start the command prompt as administrator, and then start notepad from that command prompt, notepad WILL ALSO automatically run WITH admin powers, and will not ask for permission.

What's the point of UAC?

UAC is designed to put control of your computer back into your hands, instead of at the mercy of the programs running on your computer.

When logged in as an administrator in Windows XP, any program that could somehow get itself started could take control of the entire computer without you even knowing about it.

With UAC turned on, you must know about and authorize a program in order for it to gain admin access to the system, REGARDLESS of how the program got there or how it is started.

This is important to all levels of users - from home users to enterprise administrators. Being alerted when any program tries to use admin powers and being able to unilaterally disallow a program from having such power is a VERY powerful ability. No longer is the security of the system tantamount to "crossing one's fingers and hoping for the best" - YOU now control your system.

How do I effectively use my computer with UAC turned on?

It's easy. Just keep in mind that programs don't have admin access to your computer unless you give them permission. Microsoft programs that come with Windows Vista that need admin access will always ask for admin permissions when you start them. However, most other programs will not.

You will need to run programs that need administrative powers that were not designed for Windows Vista "as administrator" by right-clicking the program and clicking Run As Administrator.

Command-line programs do not automatically ask for permission. Not even the built-in ones. You will need to run the command prompt "as administrator" in order to run administrative command-line utilities.

If you are going to be working with the control panel for a long time, running control.exe "as administrator" will make things less painful - you will only be asked for permission once, instead of every time you try to change a system-wide setting.

In short:

  • Run command prompt as admin when you need to run admin utilities
  • Run setup programs as admin
  • Run programs not designed for Vista as admin if (and only if) they need admin access
  • Run programs that need access to files that aren't yours or system files as admin
  • Run control.exe as admin when changing many settings in the control panel

UAC is annoying, I want to turn it off

Having to go through an extra step (clicking Continue) when opening administrative programs is annoying. And it is also very frustrating to run a program that needs admin power but doesn't automatically ask you for it (you have to right-click these programs and click Run As Administrator for them to run correctly).

But, keep in mind that these small inconveniences are insignificant when weighed against the benefit: NO PROGRAM can get full access to your system without you being informed. The first time the permission dialog pops up and it is from some program that you know nothing about or that you do not want to have access to your system, you will be very glad that the Cancel button was available to you.

Answers to common questions and responses to common criticism

Q: I have anti-virus, a firewall, a spyware-detector, or something similar. Why do I need UAC?

A: Detectors can only see known threats. And of all the known threats in existence, they only detect the most common of those threats. With UAC turned on, *you* control what programs have access to your computer - you can stop ALL threats. Detectors are nice, but they're not enough. How many people do you know that have detectors of all kinds and yet are still infested with programs that they don't want on their computer? Everyone that I have ever helped falls into this category.

Q: Does UAC replace anti-virus, a firewall, a spyware-detector, or similar programs?

A: No. Microsoft recommends that you use a virus scanner and/or other types of security software. These types of programs compliment UAC: They will get rid of known threats for you. UAC will allow you to stop unknown threats, as well as prevent any program that you do not trust from gaining access to your computer.

Q: I am a system administrator - I have no use for UAC.

A: Really? You don't NEED to know when a program on your computer runs with admin powers? You are a system administrator and you really could care less when a program runs that has full control of your system, and possibly your entire domain? You're joking, right?

Q: UAC keeps me from accessing files and folders

A: No, it doesn't - UAC protects you from programs that would try to delete or modify system files and folders without your knowledge. If you want a program to have full access to the files on your computer, you will need to run it as admin. Or as an alternative, if possible, put the files it needs access to in a place that all programs have access to - such as your documents folder, or any folder under your user folder.

Q: UAC stops programs from working correctly

A: If a program needs admin power and it doesn't ask you for permission when it starts, you have to give it admin powers by right-clicking it and clicking Run As Administrator. Programs should work like they did in XP when you use Run As Administrator. If they don't, then this is a bug.

Q: UAC keeps me from doing things that I could do in XP

A: This is not the case. Just remember that programs that do not ask for permission when they start do not get admin access to your computer. If you are using a tool that needs admin access, right-click it and click Run As Administrator. It should work exactly as it did in XP. If it does not, then this is a bug.

Q: UAC is Microsoft's way of controlling my computer and preventing me from using it!

A: This is 100% UNTRUE. UAC puts control of your computer IN YOUR HANDS by allowing you to prevent unwanted programs from accessing your computer. *Everything* that you can do with UAC turned off, you can do with it turned on. If this is not the case, then that is a bug.

Q: I don't need Windows to hold my freaking hand! I *know* what I've got on my computer, and I *know* when programs run! I am logged on as an ADMINISTRATOR for a dang reason!

A: I accept the way that you think, and can see the logic, but I don't agree with this idea. UAC is putting POWER in your hands by letting you CONTROL what runs on your system. But you want to give up this control and allow all programs to run willy-nilly. Look, if you want to do this go right ahead, you can turn UAC off and things will return to how they worked in XP. But, don't be surprised when either 1) You run something by mistake that messes up your computer and/or domain, or 2) A program somehow gets on your computer that you know nothing about that takes over your computer and/or domain, and UAC would have allowed you to have stopped it.

Note to Administrators

The behavior of the Run As Administrator command is different from the Run As... command in Windows XP.

This command does not run the program in the context of the built-in administrator, as you might have expected.

If the currently logged on user is a member of the Administrators group, the program is given administrator access to the system, but still runs in the context of the currently logged on user.

However, if the currently logged on user is not a member of the Administrators group, the program will run in the context of the administrator account that was used to authenticate with the UAC dialog.