Lockdown! Harden Windows 10 for maximum security

To make the most of Windows 10's security improvements, you must target the right edition and hardware for your needs

Lockdown! Harden Windows 10 for maximum security

You may have heard that Microsoft has made Windows 10 more secure than any of its predecessors, packing it with security goodies. What you might not know is that some of these vaunted security features aren’t available out of the box or they require additional hardware -- you may not be getting the level of security you bargained for.

Features such as Credential Guard are available for only certain editions of Windows 10, while the advanced biometrics promised by Windows Hello require a hefty investment in third-party hardware. Windows 10 may be the most secure Windows operating system to date, but the security-savvy organization -- and individual user -- needs to keep the following hardware and Windows 10 edition requirements in mind in order to unlock the necessary features to achieve optimum security.

Note: Presently, there are four desktop editions of Windows 10 -- Home, Pro, Enterprise, and Education -- along with multiple versions of each, offering varying levels of beta and preview software. InfoWorld’s Woody Leonard breaks down which version of Windows 10 to use. The following Windows 10 security guide focuses on standard Windows 10 installations -- not Insider Previews or Long Term Servicing Branch -- and includes Anniversary Update where relevant.

The right hardware

Windows 10 casts a wide net, with minimum hardware requirements that are undemanding. As long as you have the following, you’re good to upgrade from Win7/8.1 to Win10: 1GHz or faster processor, 2GB of memory (for Anniversary Update), 16GB (for 32-bit OS) or 20GB (64-bit OS) disk space, a DirectX 9 graphic card or later with WDDM 1.0 driver, and an 800-by-600-resolution (7-inch or larger screens) display. That describes pretty much any computer from the past decade.

But don’t expect your baseline machine to be fully secure, as the above minimum requirements won’t support many of the cryptography-based capabilities in Windows 10. Win10’s cryptography features require Trusted Platform Module 2.0, which provides a secure storage area for cryptographic keys and is used to encrypt passwords, authenticate smartcards, secure media playback to prevent piracy, protect VMs, and secure hardware and software updates against tampering, among other functions.

Modern AMD and Intel processors (Intel Management Engine, Intel Converged Security Engine, AMD Security Processor) already support TPM 2.0, so most machines bought in the past few years have the necessary chip. Intel’s vPro remote management service, for example, uses TPM to authorize remote PC repairs. But it’s worth verifying whether TPM 2.0 exists on any system you upgrade, especially given that Anniversary Update requires TPM 2.0 support in the firmware or as a separate physical chip. A new PC, or systems installing Windows 10 from scratch, must have TPM 2.0 from the get-go, which means having an endorsement key (EK) certificate preprovisioned by the hardware vendor as it is shipped. Alternatively, the device can be configured to retrieve the certificate and store it in TPM the first time it boots up.

Older systems that don’t support TPM 2.0 -- either because they don’t have the chip installed or are old enough that they have only TPM 1.2 -- will need to get a TPM 2.0-enabled chip installed. Otherwise, they will not be able to upgrade to Anniversary Update at all.

While some of the security features work with TPM 1.2, it’s better to get TPM 2.0 whenever possible. TPM 1.2 allows only for RSA and SHA-1 hashing algorithm, and considering the SHA-1 to SHA-2 migration is well under way, sticking with TPM 1.2 is problematic. TPM 2.0 is much more flexible, as it supports SHA-256 and elliptical curve cryptography.

Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) BIOS is the next piece of must-have hardware for achieving the most secure Windows 10 experience. The device needs to be shipped with UEFI BIOS enabled to allow Secure Boot, which ensures that only operating system software, kernels, and kernel modules signed with a known key can be executed during boot time. Secure Boot blocks rootkits and BIOS-malware from executing malicious code. Secure Boot requires firmware that supports UEFI v2.3.1 Errata B and has the Microsoft Windows Certification Authority in the UEFI signature database. While a boon from a security perspective, Microsoft designating Secure Boot mandatory for Windows 10 has run into controversy, as it makes it harder to run unsigned Linux distributions (such as Linux Mint) on Windows 10-capable hardware.

Anniversary Update won’t install unless your device is UEFI 2.31-compliant or later.

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