Farewell, Windows XP! We hated you, then loved you, and soon we’ll hate you again.
(This post is a resource for home and small-business users with questions about the impending end-of-life for Windows XP. Larger enterprise users have some different options available to them; contact us to discuss your situation and options.)
For those who haven’t seen it in the news yet: Microsoft will be ending support for its hugely successful operating system, Windows XP, on April 8th. This means that users of the 12-year-old operating system will no longer be able to get updates, and in particular will not be able to get security updates. Users of more modern versions of Windows, such as Windows Vista or Windows 7 will remain supported for several more years.
Once support ends, computers still on Windows XP will become a very juicy target for Internet criminals and attackers. Internet crime is big business, so every day there are criminals looking for new weaknesses in computer systems (called vulnerabilities), and developing attacks to take advantage of them (these attacks are called exploits). Normally, the software vendor (Microsoft in this case) quickly finds out about these weaknesses and releases updates to fix them. When an exploit is developed, some number of people fall victim shortly after the exploit is first used, but people who get the update in a relatively timely manner are protected.
But what happens when a vendor stops updating the software? All of a sudden, the bad guys can use these same attacks, the same exploits, indefinitely. As a product nears end of life, attackers have an incentive to hold off on using critical vulnerabilities until the deadline passes. The value of their exploits goes up significantly once they have confidence that the vendor will never patch it. Based on that, we can expect a period of relative quiet in terms of announced vulnerabilities affecting XP from now until shortly after the deadline, when we will likely see stockpiled critical vulnerabilities begin circulating. From then on, the risk of these legacy XP systems will continue to increase, so migrating away from XP or dramatically isolating the systems should be a priority for people or organizations that still use them.
How do I know if I’m running Windows XP?
- If your computer is more than 5 years old, odds are it is running Windows XP
- Simplest way: “Win+Break”: Press and hold down the Windows key on your keyboard, then find the “Pause” or “Break” key and press it. Let both keys go. That will show the System Properties windows. You may have to hunt around for your “Pause/Break” key, but hey, it finally has a use.
- Alternate way: Click the Start Menu -> Right click on “My Computer” -> On the menu that comes out, click on Properties
How do I stay safe?
Really, you should think about buying a new computer. You can think of it as a once a decade spring cleaning. If your computer is old enough to have Windows XP, having an unsupported OS is likely just one of several problems. It is possible to upgrade your old computer to a newer operating system such as Windows 7, or convert to a free Linux-based operating system, but this may be a more complicated undertaking than many users want to tackle.
Any computer you buy these days will be a huge step up from a 7-year old (at least!) machine running XP, so you can comfortably shop the cheapest lines of computers. New computers can be found for $300, and it’s also possible to buy reputable refurbished ones with a modern operating system for $100-$200.
For those who really don’t want to or can’t upgrade, the situation isn’t pretty. Your computer will continue to work as it always has, but the security of your system and your data is entirely in your hands. These systems have been low-hanging fruit for attackers for a long time, but after April 8th they will have a giant neon bull’s-eye on them.
There are a few things you can do to reduce your risks, but there really is no substitute for timely vendor patches.
- Only use the system for tasks that can’t be done elsewhere. If the reason for keeping an XP machine is to run some specific program or piece of hardware, then use it only for that. In particular, avoid web browsing and email on the unsupported machine: both activities expose the vulnerable system to lots of untrusted input.
- Keep all of your other software up to date. Install and use the latest version of Firefox or Chrome web browsers, which won’t be affected by Microsoft’s end of life.
- Back up your computer. There are many online backup services available for less than $5 a month. If something goes wrong, you want to make sure that your data is safe. Good online backup services provide a “set it and forget it” peace of mind. This is probably the single most important thing you can do, and should be a priority even for folks using a supported operating system. Backblaze, CrashPlan, and SpiderOak are all reasonable choices for home users.
- Run antivirus software, and keep it up to date. AVAST, AVG, and Bitdefender are all reasonable free options but be aware that antivirus is only a layer of protection: it’s not perfect.