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New Vista firewall fails on outbound security

Preston Gralla discovers it's impossible to practically configure outbound filtering

February 7, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft Corp. has touted Windows Vista as providing significant security improvements over Windows XP, and it offers the Windows Firewall, with its new two-way filtering feature, as one example of that better security.

But as shipped, the Windows Firewall offers little outbound protection, and it's not clear how outbound protection can be configured to protect against spyware, Trojan horses and bots.

Firewalls such as the Windows Firewall work by halting dangerous connections a PC makes over the Internet. The Windows XP firewall offered inbound protection but did not offer outbound protection. Some malware makes unwanted, invisible outbound connections with hackers that can let them take control of a PC.

In some cases, a computer can be turned into a "zombie" or a bot, spewing out thousands of pieces of spam over outbound connections without the owner's knowledge.

Competing firewalls such as ZoneAlarm, the Norton Personal Firewall and the McAfee Internet Security Suite offer user-configurable outbound protection, also known as outbound filtering. When Microsoft reworked its firewall for Windows Vista, it added the ability to perform outbound filtering.

But by default, most outbound filtering in the Windows Vista firewall is turned off. In addition, there may be no practical way to use outbound filtering to stop all unwanted outbound connections.

Normally, to configure the Window Vista Firewall, you choose Control Panel, then Security, then Turn Windows Firewall on or off. You'll see the screen shown in the figure below.

Adding gadgets to the Windows Sidebar.  
This screen doesn't let you configure outbound filtering for the Windows Firewall.
(Click image to see larger view.)

As you can see, there is no way to configure outbound filtering -- you can only turn inbound filtering on or off, and through the various tabs, you can configure how inbound filtering works.

To work with outbound filtering, you instead have to use the Microsoft Management Console, specifically the Windows Firewall with Advanced Security Group Policy applet, by typing wf.msc at the Search box or command prompt and pressing Enter. It's shown in the figure below.

Adding gadgets to the Windows Sidebar.  
To configure outbound filtering, use the Windows Firewall with Advanced Security Group Policy applet.
(Click image to see larger view)

If you look in the various profiles in the Overview area, you'll see that for each profile, "Outbound connections that do not match a rule are allowed."

Every rule in the Windows Firewall allows outbound connections, though. Click the Outbound Rules icon on the left side of the screen, and you'll see all the outbound rules. As you can see from the figure below, every outbound rule allows outbound connections. None block connection.

Every single outbound rule allows outbound connections.  
Every single outbound rule allows outbound connections.
(Click image to see larger view.)


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