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Riding the Vista UAC elevator, up and down

, 27 Feb 2007
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How to control the execution level of Vista applications

Sample Image - VistaElevator.gif

Introduction

When developing applications for Windows Vista, one of the problems that often arises is how to programmatically control the execution level of a process. When the user starts an application, its elevation level is determined by the value of the requestedExecutionLevel attribute in its manifest, and Vista's User Account Control (UAC) takes appropriate actions depending on it (such as displaying the elevation prompt when needed, etc.) However, what if the application needs to start a new process with a different execution level than that of the application itself? For example:

  • An application that runs at the standard (non-elevated) level determines that an updated version of it is available for download. To be able to update itself, it needs to start a separate process that needs to be elevated in order to perform the upgrade properly. In this case a non-elevated process needs to start a new, elevated process.
  • Most of the installation utilities offer the user the option to run the application automatically at the end of the installation. The installation utility is executing at the elevated level, however, the application must be started at the standard, non-elevated level.

Microsoft has provided a relatively easy way to accomplish the first task (starting a process elevated), by specifying the "runas" verb when calling the ShellExecuteEx API. However, for some reason they have not offered a similarly easy way of going in the opposite direction: to start a non-elevated process from an elevated one. In this article I will show how to solve this and related problems.

Determining the current elevation level

First of all, how can an application determine its current elevation level? The file VistaTools.cxx included in the source code to this article contains two functions that give the answer to this question.

The first such function is GetElevationType() and it uses the Win32 API GetTokenInformation() to obtain the elevation type of the token of the current process. The possible values that it can return are:

  • TokenElevationTypeDefault - User is not using a "split" token. This value indicates that either UAC is disabled, or the process is started by a standard user (not a member of the Administrators group).
  • TokenElevationTypeFull - the process is running elevated.
  • TokenElevationTypeLimited - the process is not running elevated.

Note that the last two values can be returned only if both the UAC is enabled and the user is a member of the Administrator's group (that is, the user has a "split" token).

The second function is IsElevated() that also calls the GetTokenInformation() API, but requests the TokenElevation class of information. It can return one of the following:

  • S_OK - the current process is elevated. This value indicates that either UAC is enabled, and the process was elevated by the administrator, or that UAC is disabled and the process was started by a user who is a member of the Administrators group.
  • S_FALSE - the current process is not elevated (limited). This value indicates that either UAC is enabled, and the process was started normally, without the elevation, or that UAC is disabled and the process was started by a standard user.

Using these two functions, an application can determine the exact circumstances of its execution.

Starting an elevated process

If a non-elevated process needs to start an elevated one, all it has to do is call the ShellExecuteEx() API and supply the "runas" verb as one of its parameters. The source code of this article contains the function RunElevated() that does just that:

BOOL
RunElevated(    HWND hwnd,
        LPCTSTR pszPath,
        LPCTSTR pszParameters = NULL,
        LPCTSTR pszDirectory = NULL )
{
    SHELLEXECUTEINFO shex;

    memset( &shex, 0, sizeof( shex) );

    shex.cbSize        = sizeof( SHELLEXECUTEINFO );
    shex.fMask        = 0;
    shex.hwnd        = hwnd;
    shex.lpVerb        = _T("runas");
    shex.lpFile        = pszPath;
    shex.lpParameters    = pszParameters;
    shex.lpDirectory    = pszDirectory;
    shex.nShow        = SW_NORMAL;

    return ::ShellExecuteEx( &shex );
}

Starting a non-elevated process from an elevated one

Going in the opposite direction (from an elevated process to a non-elevated one) turns out to be much more difficult. If the parent process is elevated, then any process it starts directly becomes elevated too, no matter which value of the requestedExecutionLevel attribute is specified in the application's manifest. For some reason, Microsoft has not provided an API to lower the execution level directly, so we had to come up with an indirect way of achieving the goal.

The trick is to use the built-in Task Scheduler of Windows Vista to set up a task to be executed at the low execution level, and request that the task should start as soon as it is registered with Task Scheduler. The net result is about the same as if the process was started directly.

The source code of this article contains the function RunAsStdUser() that does exactly that. It is based on the MSDN sample "Registration Trigger Example", and it involves calls to more than a dozen COM interfaces to communicate with the Task Scheduler and set up a task to run at the standard (non-elevated) level. I am not including the source code of the function here as it's rather boring; you can find it in the file VistaTools.cxx

Seeing it all in action

The demo application (VistaElevator) illustrates how to perform both the elevation and lowering of the execution level programmatically. When you run it, it displays a dialog box that shows the information about the execution level of the current process obtained by calling GetElevationType() and IsElevated() (see above). It also offers you two choices of how to restart it, elevated or not. Depending on your choice, VistaElevator calls either RunElevated() or RunAsStdUser() functions (see above) to restart itself at the requested execution level.

Note: Make sure you have the latest Windows SDK (see msdn.microsoft.com for more information) if you want to compile the source code on your own.

An update: Vista Elevator 2.0

  • 2007-Feb-27: I have posted an updated version 2.0 of this sample application at http://www.tweak-uac.com. The main improvement is the new function RunNonElevated() that does not rely on Task Scheduler and works well for both the administrators and standard users. Check it out!

License

This article has no explicit license attached to it but may contain usage terms in the article text or the download files themselves. If in doubt please contact the author via the discussion board below.

A list of licenses authors might use can be found here

About the Author

Andrei Belogortseff
Web Developer
United States United States
When not busy entertaining my two cats, I run my micro-ISV business at www.winability.com

Comments and Discussions

 
QuestionWindows Server 2012 R2 run UAC elevator error(UAC is Open) [modified] Pinmemberhuxizero10-Apr-14 7:44 
QuestionIs there a way to implement temporary elevation? Pinmember-273C12-Dec-10 3:51 
GeneralMethod that doesn't require injection or process token changes PinmemberLeo Davidson24-Feb-10 1:20 
GeneralRun non-elevated, another method PinmemberKonkevych16-Mar-09 3:31 
Generalimprovements to the 1.0 code PinmemberTodd C. Gleason5-Mar-09 6:17 
GeneralImproved Function RunNonElevated() in V2.0 Pinmemberncalverl15-Jan-09 3:43 
GeneralVista user account mode getting wrtting permission for an exe in program files/programdata Pinmemberknareshkumar1-Dec-08 18:14 
GeneralRe: Vista user account mode getting wrtting permission for an exe in program files/programdata Pinmemberknareshkumar1-Dec-08 22:59 
GeneralCan't built project Pinmembermanh_duc23-Nov-08 19:20 
GeneralRun As standard user with a manifest file Pinmembersrinivas vaithianathan9-Mar-08 20:23 
QuestionRegarding UAC and drag and drop and other problems. Pinmemberna.nu19-Nov-07 17:36 
Hi,
 
Read your article and used "run as" in installer and added manifests to a application executables that I am working on. Am able to get the elevation prompt on launch of the application. I am facing some problems though:
 
1) The application (win32) I am working on uses drag and drop. It a legacy application and I still use an old IDE for its development. The problem is that elevation has worked but drag and drop does not work any more. I read that since explorer and the desktop work at a lower priviledge level (medium) my application cannot receive any messages related to drag and drop. How do I resolve this? I have tried adding drag and drop messages to the application message filter using an API Changewindowmessagefilter(). This caused the application to crash.
 
2) I require to map a drive for my application to use. If I use Explorer to map the drive then my application does not recieve any messages regarding the added network drive. If I map using my application then only does my application becomes aware of the network drive.
 
3) All folders in a drive are set to read only so I cant send files to these drives as I get write protection status on checking the drive before copying.
 
Please help. Thanks.
 
Cry | :((
AnswerRe: Regarding UAC and drag and drop and other problems. PinmemberAndrei Belogortseff20-Nov-07 12:37 
QuestionHow to elevate when UAC is disabled ? Pinmember_Olivier_15-Nov-07 23:44 
AnswerRe: How to elevate when UAC is disabled ? PinmemberGeert van Horrik18-Mar-08 5:58 
GeneralRe: How to elevate when UAC is disabled ? Pinmember_Olivier_18-Mar-08 6:51 
GeneralRe: How to elevate when UAC is disabled ? PinmemberGeert van Horrik19-Mar-08 7:38 
GeneralRe: How to elevate when UAC is disabled ? Pinmember_Olivier_21-Mar-08 3:15 
QuestionCan one Elevate from Low to Medium? PinmemberDon Griffin29-Aug-07 18:08 
GeneralClose application if non-elevated process is opened. PinmemberIdentity Undisclosed9-Aug-07 12:32 
GeneralRe: Close application if non-elevated process is opened. PinmemberAndrei Belogortseff29-Aug-07 8:36 
GeneralGet around Vista UAC restriction and prompt for the most part Pinmembernnm1-Aug-07 14:38 
GeneralRe: Get around Vista UAC restriction and prompt for the most part PinmemberAndrei Belogortseff2-Aug-07 11:09 
GeneralRe: Get around Vista UAC restriction and prompt for the most part Pinmembernnm2-Aug-07 13:40 
GeneralRe: Get around Vista UAC restriction and prompt for the most part PinmemberAndrei Belogortseff2-Aug-07 14:06 
QuestionUAC elevator problem [modified] Pinmembervikasetrx24-Jun-07 22:47 

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