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​Operating System Passwords - Part 2 of Data Security

As part of our Insecurity About Data Security series

So you know the advice right? Your operating system account needs to be password protected. It is pretty simple stuff, easy to implement and most modern operating systems encourage you to do so, some even force you to do it. You also likely know that doing so will stop somebody from immediately accessing your computer when it is first turned on, but how secure is this in reality? Does it offer protection to your data?
 

The illusion of security

The fact may be surprising for some but setting a User password is barely more secure than having no password at all – in certain circumstances. The true importance of an account password is to protect against unauthorised network access. The user password does not actually prevent somebody from accessing any data on the device at all (unless the password is used in conjunction with some additional protection such as encryption).. This applies not only to Microsoft Windows but also Mac OS X, Linux and most other modern operating systems, so what is the issue?
 
The main security weakness stems from the structure of user permissions on all modern operating systems. The booted computer operating system always has precedence over any storage devices that are connected to it. In most cases, this means that simply by taking out your hard drive and connecting it to another machine, your password is rendered useless. The new machine that is accessing your device will ‘own’ it, be able to change permissions and access your data irrelevant of whether or not a password was sent. So not very secure then...
 
There are other methods for most popular systems that can circumvent the need to enter the correct password too. Here are some examples:

Windows Operating Systems

Need access to a Windows drive protected by a User Account password but do not wish to remove the drive? No problem…

..There are free and paid utilities that allow you to clear the password or set it to something of your own choosing. Doing so will allow you to reboot and access the device as if you were the account owner. It takes only a few minutes to achieve this and, once it is done, the uninvited guest will have access to everything under your user account that is not protected in any other way.

Mac OS X

Have you enabled the root account on your Mac?
Have you set an EFI password?
 
Thought not…
 
…Most users are unaware of what a root account is and are certainly not interested in controlling access to this account or their machine, instead trusting in their login password to protect them from unauthorised access. Just as with Windows OSes, an unauthorised individual can give themselves access to your machine and your data and it is not a difficult thing to achieve. There are a few ways to do it but it only requires fairly rudimentary knowledge to achieve.

Linux

Just like Mac OS X, Linux inherited the UNIX permissions structure and works in the same way when it comes to physical connection. There are also numerous ways of accessing an account that you do not own some can be done without removal of the data storage device. Most are done in a similar way to the Mac, only requiring access to the root account, the difference of course is that the root account is normally enabled and password protected in a more secure way than it is in Mac OS X by default.
 
Aren’t Unix derived OSes more secure from the off?
There is a common belief that due to their Unix heritage, both Mac OS X and Linux are inherently more secure than Windows. This is far from the truth and all operating systems have their inherent faults. Unix derived operating systems are only as secure as they are designed to be and then the actual security that the system provides is very much dependent on how the user sets up the system and also how they make use of it.
 

Is your day to day computer account an Administrator account? Should it be? We will be discussing the problem of admin account usage, alongside some tips on hardening the security of your computer in the coming weeks.

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