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Welcome to Active Directory Tips & Tricks

Managing Hardware Restrictions via Group Policy

Managing Hardware Restrictions via Group Policy

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At a Glance:
  • Restricting hardware installations
  • Restricting specific devices
  • Restricting classes of devices


You know it’s true: those USB thumb-disk keys and removable media doo-dads make your personal life easier, but your professional life harder. You want a way to control which
hardware devices can be installed and which can’t. Fortunately, with Group Policy in Windows Vista™ and the next version of Windows Server®, code-named "Longhorn," you have the option to allow USB mice but disallow USB disk-on-keys, permit CD-ROM readers, but not DVD-writers, or allow Bluetooth but not PCMCIA.
Two sections in Group Policy can help you secure your hardware: Computer Configuration | Administrative Templates | System | Removable Storage Access (see Figure 1), and Computer Configuration | Administrative Templates | System | Device Installation | Device Installation Restriction (see Figure 2).
Figure 1 Predefined hardware restrictions in Group Policy (Click the image for a larger view)
Figure 2 Customize the kinds of hardware you want to restrict (Click the image for a larger view)
The first set (Removable Storage Access) is fairly self-explanatory: if you enable a policy setting for that kind of removable storage (CD/DVD, floppy disk, and so on), then you can restrict reading and/or writing to that whole device type, if desired. But it doesn’t quite have the superpowers Device Installation Restrictions has.
In Removable Storage Access, there are policy setting groups named Custom Classes: Deny read access and Custom Classes: Deny write access. This sounds good, but the Removable Storage Access policy doesn’t actually prevent the drivers from being installed—the driver for the class is already installed when the hardware is detected. What the policy does is prevent the device from being read or written to. In the next section, when I explore the Device Installation Restrictions policy settings, I’ll lock down the use of the whole driver itself.

Getting a Handle on Classes and IDs

First things first: you need to know what you want to restrict. You can think big or you can think small. That is, you can restrict a specific "class" of devices or get super-specific and restrict a single hardware type. Or you can do the converse and allow only specific device classes, like USB mice. Here’s the trick, though: to really be effective you’re going to need to track down the hardware you want to restrict.
So, if you want to say "No joystick drivers can be installed" and "Only USB mice can be installed," you need to get hold of a joystick and a USB mouse. The alternative is to use the Internet to track down either the Hardware ID, Compatible ID, or Device Class. However, it’s much easier if you have one of the actual devices in front of you. That way, you can introduce it to your machine and see for yourself what the Hardware ID, Compatible ID, or Device Class is. Once you know that, you’ll know exactly how to squash it (or leave it available).
In the following example, I’ll squash a specific sound card family: a Creative AutoPCI ES1371/ES1373. If you want to squash something else (like specific USB devices, USB ports, and so on), just follow along and substitute the device you want.
Fire up Device Manager on a machine that already has the hardware items installed. When you find the device, right-click it and select Properties, then the Details tab. By default you’ll see a "Device description." While interesting, it’s not that useful. Select the Property dropdown and choose "Hardware Ids" as in Figure 3.
Figure 3 The Details tab of the device (Click the image for a larger view)
The Hardware Ids page shows you from top to bottom the most-specific to least-specific device ID. If you look closely at the topmost item in the Hardware Ids value list, you’ll see this sound card is specifically a Rev 2 of the ES1371 sound board. That’s pretty darned specific. As you go down the list, the description becomes less specific to encompass the whole family.
Moreover, you can change the Property to Compatible Ids. These also describe the hardware and are considered less specific than what you find in Hardware Ids. You might choose to use the information in Compatible Ids to try to corral more hardware that’s similar into your don’t-use list—because it’s less specific and might actually net more results. Of course, the tradeoff is that you might restrict something you didn’t want to restrict.
And, finally, the least-specific category can be found by selecting Device Class from the Property dropdown. In my case, the sound card shows up as simply Media. But a number of items can be considered Media, so again, the less specific you go the more cautious you should be.
Once you’ve decided which value to use, right-click it, select Copy, and paste it into Notepad for safekeeping. Copying it directly as it’s presented is important because in the next steps, the value must be entered exactly. All uppercase and lowercase characters in the value must be transferred precisely.
If you want to be a command-line commando instead of using Device Manager to capture the Hardware Ids or Device Classes, check out the Devcon command-line utility at support.microsoft.com/kb/311272. And note that Microsoft has a number of identifiers for common classes that may be helpful if you don’t have physical access to the device; see the information at go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?LinkId=52665.
Hardware Access Control via Group Policy
While we’ll explore all the policy settings located in Computer Configuration | Administrative Templates | System | Device Installation | Device Installation Restriction (shown in Figure 2), there is really only one we’ll need to complete this initial example.
First create a Group Policy Object (GPO) and link it to an OU (or domain, and so on) that contains the machines running Windows Vista that you want to control. Now edit the GPO and drill down into Computer Configuration |Administrative Templates | System | Device Installation | Device Installation Restriction | Prevent installation of devices that match any of these device IDs. Select Enabled in the policy setting, click Show (also in the policy setting), and select Add in the "Show Contents" dialog. Then in the "Add Item" dialog box, paste in the device information you saved before, as shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4 Paste the device ID to capture the description exactly (Click the image for a larger view)
Now here’s the catch. If a machine already has the device installed, it doesn’t magically uninstall and restrict access to it. So, if you’re going to restrict hardware, you’ll want to do this early in your Windows Vista deployment. However, it should be noted that Windows Vista will recheck whenever a device is then removed and reinstalled. Items like USB thumb drives (which get removed and reinserted later) thus are excellent candidates for this process. Since Windows Vista only rechecks when the device is reintroduced, the device is restricted at that time (even if the device driver was initially loaded on the machine). The more difficult problem concerns devices that ship with a machine and don’t get removed and reintroduced. And for those devices, there’s no immediately obvious solution.
When you turn on a machine that has never seen the hardware device before, Windows will try to install the driver, providing status information as it progresses. If you’ve set up a policy restricting such devices, you’ll see a result as in Figure 5.
Figure 5 A device installation being prevented  (Click the image for a larger view)
More Hardware Restrictions
In the example above, we squashed just one device. If you wanted to, you could go the opposite route, restricting all hardware by default and then allowing some. Again, you can see a list of these policy settings in Figure 2, which shows the Computer Configuration | Administrative Templates | Device Installation | Device Installation Restrictions branch of Group Policy. You can choose from several available settings.
First, there’s "Allow administrators to override Device Installation Restrictions." By default, local administrators on Windows Vista must honor the restrictions that are put in place. If you enable this setting, local administrators can override the restriction and install whatever hardware they want.
Next is "Allow installation of devices using drivers that match these setup classes." By entering device descriptions in this policy setting, you’re expressly allowing those hardware devices to be installed on the system. Note that this policy setting honors only setup classes, not device IDs (like those used in the example).
To achieve the opposite effect, you can set "Prevent installation of devices using drivers that match these device setup classes."
The two settings "Display a custom message when installation is prevented by policy (balloon text) and (balloon title)" help you customize the message, as in Figure 5.
As mentioned earlier, the least-specific way to describe hardware is based on hardware class. It should be noted that the policy setting "Allow installation of devices that match any of these device IDs" does not honor Class ID descriptions. To use Class ID descriptions, use either "Allow installation of devices using drivers that match these device setup classes" or "Prevent installation of devices using drivers that match these device setup classes." This latter policy is best used with the setting "Prevent installation of devices not described by other policy settings." By preventing everything (by default) and then using this setting you can specify precisely which devices you want to allow.
In the example, I used the policy "Prevent installation of devices that match any of these device IDs" to restrict a specific type of hardware based on device IDs. If you wanted to implement restrictions using Device Classes, you would have to leverage other specific policy settings such as "Allow installation of devices using drivers that match these device setup classes" or "Prevent installation of devices using drivers that match these device setup classes."
"Prevent installation of removable devices" is a quick, generic way to restrict any hardware device that describes itself as removable, including USB devices. This setting is rather general, so it’s best not to use it too often. Instead, use the techniques described earlier to get moderately restrictive Device IDs and lock them down specifically.
Finally, "Prevent installation of devices not described by other policy settings" is the catchall policy setting that basically restricts all hardware unless you’ve specifically dictated that something can install. This policy in conjunction with the various "Allow" policies (such as "Allow installation of devices that match any of these device IDs") makes a really powerful tool for allowing only the hardware you want in your environment.
Group Policy in Windows Vista has a number of new superpowers, which are extremely useful for allowing only the hardware you want in your environment. Just implement your policy settings early in your deployment, so the hardware you don’t want on your network never finds a way to connect.
Interview with Michael Dennis, Lead Program Manager for Group Policy at Microsoft
I recently had the opportunity to interview Michael Dennis, who has steered the Group Policy ship at Microsoft since its inception. Michael is leaving the Group Policy team to pursue other opportunities within Microsoft. I sat down with Michael to reflect on the last nine years of Group Policy, where it’s been, and where it’s going.

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