Why Your Admin Account Could Be A Security Risk

Just about everyone uses an administrator account for the primary computer account. In fact, unless you’ve taken deliberate steps to turn it off, you’re probably using an admin account right now. Every computer needs one admin account, and the accepted way to handle that is to set the first created account as the administrator account.

You might not know that there are security risks associated with using an admin account as your main computer account. If a malicious program or attackers are able to get control of your user account, they can do a lot more damage with an administrator account than with a standard account.

You can protect yourself by using a standard account as your primary account and then temporarily elevating permissions when you need to make administrator changes.

What’s the difference between an admin account and a standard account?

Administrator accounts (or admin accounts) are (just about) the most powerful account type on a computer. They have permission to do just about everything on a machine – think of the I.T. guys at the office that you have to ask before certain operations. Every computer needs to have at least one admin user somewhere, either locally or on the network.

Standard accounts are more limited. The ways in which they are limited can vary depending on operating system and OS type. On macOS, standard accounts can access, modify and create files in the Home directories, adjust non-secure System Preferences settings and install software that doesn’t install anything in the System or Library directories, like software from the Mac App Store. Standard users can’t install new software or access critical system files. This shouldn’t interfere with most day-to-day work, depending on what you do and how you do it.

Non-admin accounts can be locked down in a variety of ways outside of mandatory system restrictions. With user controls, administrators can place much more severe restrictions on user accounts. This runs the gamut from prohibiting certain applications and URLs to setting a daily time limit. This can make them useful for kids or employees.

As a rule, standard users can’t access system-critical systems without permission from an admin user. Most frequently, this comes in the form of that admin user’s username and password acknowledging an action.

As a sidebar, there is a type of account that’s more powerful than the admin account: it’s called “root.” On a Unix system like macOS, it’s the one account to rule them all. It’s not a user you can log in as, but more a set of super-permissions that you can access as needed. For example, running the sudo account in Terminal temporarily “elevates” your admin account to root, allowing you to overcome any permission barrier and do almost whatever you want.

Why are standard accounts more secure than admin accounts?

Admin accounts have near absolute permission to administer their account in they way they choose is best. And as the owner or primary user of a hardware device, it might make sense to use an admin account as your main account. But this has some security risks associated with it. If malware is installed under your admin user account, the malware can do anything that you can do. So the more permissions your user account has, the greater damage the user account can do. And while malware might be less common on macOS, it’s hardly non-existent.

Standard accounts don’t have as much flexibility. That can make them a bit of a drag to use. But for security-conscious users, they offer an extra layer of protection against security breaches. Malware installed under a standard account can’t make any damaging changes to system files. And attackers that gain access to a standard account can only access that user’s files. As a result, the restrictions of standard accounts work in your favor should an adversary or malicious program gain access to your account.

Creating standard accounts on macOS

If you want to try out using standard accounts on your personal Mac, it’s pretty easy. If you only have one user account (like most folks) you’ll first want to create a new administrator account. (Your computer needs at least one administrator to make system changes.) If you already have a secondary administrator account for some reason, you can skip creating the new account.

Then, you’ll want to downgrade your primary user account to a standard user account. Once everything is set up, you’ll use your admin user’s username and password to approve administrator actions instead of your own. On macOS, this basically means you’ll have to type a different password and username at the admin password prompts. It also means you might see more of those prompts, depending on what you do with your computer.

1. Open System Preferences.

2. Choose “Users & Groups” from the bottom row.

3. Click the lock and enter your password to unlock the pane.

4. Click the “+” button to create a new account.

5. Choose “Administrator” from the “New Account” drop down menu.

6. Set the username and password. Be sure that “Allow user to administer this computer” is checked at the bottom.

7. Log out of your current user. Then, log into your new user.

8. Select your previous account in the sidebar. Uncheck the box that says “Allow user to administer this computer” to convert your old admin user to a standard user.

9. When prompted, restart your computer to downgrade your account.

10. Log back into your user account and use it as normal. Enter your new admin user’s username and password when you need to perform administrator tasks.

Should I bother, though?

While using a standard user account might be slightly more annoying, it does provide security benefits that can protect you in the event of a security failure. Sure, a lot has to go wrong on your personal machine for this to be important. But sometimes, just having one extra layer of security is enough to deter break-ins. For users concerned about security or seeking greater digital peace of mind, this step can be invaluable.

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