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23 March 2014

The Dramatic Death of Windows XP (yawn)

Update for Commercial Users (29 May 2014)

If your computer stores consumer data such as credit card or health information, certain regulations require you to upgrade your system. Charles Ripley of IDG Creative Lab states that regulators and credit card companies require many businesses to upgrade their systems immediately or else risk fines or discontinuation of service. For more details, read Protect Your Bottom Line by Making Sure Your Business is Compliant.

(Updated: 8 April 2014)

Death! Destruction! Hackers! Viruses! Despair!

For the last decade, it seems, we've heard about the impending crisis due to Microsoft discontinuing support for its 12-year old Windows XP operating system, Office XP, and Office 2003. This snippet comes from NASA's CIO:
Using Windows XP past April 8, 2014 may leave users significantly more vulnerable to viruses and malicious code. There is a high likelihood of a significant increase in attacks targeting XP users by malicious actors once support is officially discontinued.
That's pretty calm, compared to some sources.

Windows XP End of Support: A Hacker's
Hackers Will Feast On Windows XP Starting April 2014

Windows XP Could Be Infected Within 10 Minutes of Support Ending
End of Windows XP support will be 'starting pistol for hackers'

Take a valium, breath into a paper bag, and count to ten.

Obviously, the hype will drive many to replace their XP operating systems with Windows 7 or 8. This will bring a boom in sales to Microsoft. It will also benefit computer manufacturers when people find out that Windows 7 or 8 won't run on their old computers.

In fact, it will probably benefit Apple as people who really wanted a Mac finally go through with that purchase they've been putting off.

XP still accounts for almost a third of personal computers, worldwide. The loss of support from Microsoft will eventually make XP computers a soft target for hackers. However, as the world rushes give Microsoft more of their money, XP will become less common and, therefore, a less interesting target for hackers.

XP will not suddenly become vulnerable to all viruses on April 8. Microsoft updates operating systems after weaknesses are discovered. That process of identifying and responding to new threats takes weeks to months. Since Microsoft releases its updates once per month, XP won't miss its first security update until May.

When XP misses its first security update in May, the hackers will pick apart the updates for Windows 7 and 8. Since some of the vulnerabilities in 7 and 8 date back to XP, the May update will give hackers clues about weaknesses in XP. Deciphering all that will take time. Inserting code to exploit the weaknesses into new viruses will take more time. Then they have to start distributing the viruses, and it takes more time for viruses to spread.

Microsoft stops, but not everybody stops.

Microsoft stopping its XP updates does not mean that antivirus software will stop working! Antivirus makers such as AVG and Norton will continue updating their software.

Keep Calm and Compute On

I have an old XP desktop that I use for recording audio. I generally do not use it for accessing the Internet.

On April 8, I'll make sure I have the latest updates from Microsoft. Then I'll back up the softpacks in case I need to restore the drive.

I'll order the barkeep to pour me another sarsaparilla, and pay attention to tech news. When I begin to fear that XP has become too vulnerable, all I have to do is turn off its access to the Internet. I right click on the Wireless icon and click on Disable.

(But first, I'll probably update the virus scanner one last time.)

Then, to free up disc space, I uninstall my browsers and email program. No big deal!

But, but, but... the ATMs!

On the dangerous side: I have read that all ATMs use a version of XP. I have not seen any articles describing what ATM owners intend to do about it.

However, I suspect that ATMs use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to communicate with bank servers. A VPN is an encrypted link, like a tunnel through the internet between two computers. A VPN would block most other Internet communications.

When was the last time you saw somebody using an ATM to browse the Web, download music, or check email? Those are the most common sources of malware. ATMs don't get exposed to viruses and hackers like our home or work computers do.

I'm sure many hackers will take up the challenge as new weaknesses in XP become known, but again, such things take time, and ATMs have a lot of security already in place.

Recurring Theme

Do you see what I'm getting at? Instead of an asteroid slamming into Earth at 20,000 miles per hour, it will be more like The Blob, creeping slowly as people run around in panic.

We have time to take steps and to figure this out.

Steps to Protect Your XP Computer

  • It is 9 PM, California time. Microsoft is still allowing me to download and install the latest security updates. If you haven't done so, open Internet Explorer, click on Tools, Windows Update. Then guide your computer through the update. I suggest using the Custom update because some of the optional updates will add to your computer's security.
  • I went to update our house guest's laptop and found that, apparently, it had been years since she had run the update. Almost 160 updates are being downloaded now. (Estimated time, almost 6 hours!)
  • Make sure your Windows Firewall is turned on.
  • Make sure your antivirus software has the latest updates and virus definition files. If you use the Internet much, make sure the antivirus software scans your computer at least weekly. If you do something that raises your suspicions, run the scan manually.
  • If you don't have an antivirus program, get one. PC Magazine's The Best Free Antivirus for 2014 names AVG and Avira Free Antivirus (2014) as the best for keeping viruses out of your system. (Look under Real-Time Protection in the article. If you have viruses already, look under the Cleaning Up the Mess.)
  • There's good news about antivirus programs: Most of the antivirus programs that support XP will be supported for another year -- even Microsoft Security Essentials. Make a mental note, though: In April 2015, you may have to replace your antivirus program with another one.
  • If you log on as the only user, you are probably the Administrator. That means that, when you run a program, it can make changes to Windows. If you are not the Administrator, you may still have admin privileges. To prevent infected Web sites from making changes to your computer, you need to log on as a regular user without Admin privileges.
  • If you are the Admin or sole user of the computer, go into the user accounts settings and create a new user (you). Make sure the new user account does not have Admin privileges.
  • If you have a secondary account but also have Admin privileges, have the Admin log in and disable your Admin privileges.
  • Although Internet Explorer is up to version 11, the latest version that supports XP is version 8. Microsoft will stop supporting IE 8. I recommend Chrome and Firefox. Install them and don't use IE unless you find a good reason to.
  • As I said above, when I begin to fear that XP has become too vulnerable, all I have to do is turn off its access to the Internet. I right click on the Wireless icon and click on Disable.


(C) 2014, Richard Wheeler

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