What Is SmartScreen? - dummies

By Woody Leonhard

Microsoft came up with an interesting technique it calls SmartScreen that gives you an extra chance to change your mind, if the software you’re trying to install has drawn criticism from other Windows customers. It was built in to the older version of Internet Explorer, version 8. It’s now part of Windows 10.

SmartScreen is not the same as Smart Search. SmartScreen, discussed here, offers some real benefits to most Windows users. Smart Search, on the other hand, is a pernicious piece of snooping malware that Microsoft sneaks into Windows 10. You have to turn off Cortana in order to disable Smart Search — and that isn’t easy. Follow along here to use SmartScreen.

One part of SmartScreen works in conjunction with Windows Defender. In fact, sometimes an infected file triggers a toaster notification from Windows Defender, and later the same infected file prompts the SmartScreen warning shown here.

SmartScreen may take the credit for the bust, but Windows Defender did the work.
SmartScreen may take the credit for the bust, but Windows Defender did the work.

If you don’t run the program, it gets stuffed into the same location that Windows Defender puts its quarantined programs — out of the way where you can’t find it, unless you go in through Windows Defender’s History tab.

There’s a second part of SmartScreen that works completely differently. Something like this:

  1. You download something — anything — from the Internet.

    Most browsers and many email programs and other online services (including instant messengers) put a “brand” on the file that indicates where the file came from.

  2. When you try to launch the file, Windows checks the name of the file and the URL of origin to see whether they’re on a “trusted” white list.

  3. If the file doesn’t pass muster, you see the notification shown.

  4. The more people who install the program from that site, the more “trusted” the program becomes.

    Again, Microsoft is collecting information about your system — in this case, about your downloads — but it’s for a good cause.

Microsoft claims that SmartScreen helped protect IE9 users from more than 1.5 billion attempted malware attacks and 150 million phishing attacks. Microsoft also claims that, when a Windows user is confronted with a confirmation message, the risk of getting infected is 25-70 percent. Of course it’s impossible to independently verify those figures — and the gap from 25-70 percent gapes — but SmartScreen does seem to help in the fight against scumware.

So what can go wrong? Not much. If SmartScreen can’t make a connection to its main database when it hits something phishy, er, fishy, you see a green screen like the one shown here telling you that SmartScreen can’t be reached right now. The connection can be broken for many reasons, such as the Microsoft servers go down or maybe you downloaded a program and decided to run it later. When that happens, if you can’t get your machine connected, you’re on your own.

If SmartScreen can't phone home, it leaves you on your own.
If SmartScreen can’t phone home, it leaves you on your own.

Turning off SmartScreen is an option when you install Windows. You can also turn it off manually. Normally, overriding a SmartScreen warning requires the okay of someone with an administrator account. You can change that, too. Here’s how:

  1. In the Cortana search box, to the right of the Start button, type smartscreen. At the top of the resulting list, click or tap Change SmartScreen settings.

    The old Control Panel’s Security and Maintenance pane appears.

  2. On the left, click or tap the Change Windows SmartScreen settings link.

    The Windows SmartScreen dialog box appears, as shown in the following figure.

  3. Tap or click the appropriate button to drop the requirement for an administrative account in order to okay a SmartScreen warning override or to turn off SmartScreen entirely.

  4. Tap or click OK.

    If you disabled SmartScreen, you see a near-immediate reaction in the desktop’s notification area, warning you that SmartScreen has been turned off.

    Think twice before turning off SmartScreen.
    Think twice before turning off SmartScreen.