For better or worse, it’s a Windows world out there. So what happens when those windows start to close?
With more than 90 percent of computers running Windows machines, a small crisis erupted this April when Microsoft announced it would terminate all support and upgrades to its Windows XP operating system, an OS on which many consumers and businesses still rely.
The lack of updates leaves XP open for hackers to exploit security holes; a recent example of what’s at stake being the theft of more than 100 million customers’ credit card information from retailer Target’s computer systems.
“Target, knowing they were a big target, have tremendous firewall security, but the hackers got in through the HVAC system, which is undoubtedly run by a PC,” explains J.R. Rodriguez of Allied Communications, a West Haven-based IT/communications and security firm that provides voice and data capabilities for clients in sectors as varied as hospitality, manufacturing, financial services, government and retail.
Windows XP was introduced in late 2001, and although mainstream consumer support ended in 2009, extended support (available at a price) was available until this year. Microsoft is phasing out the 12-year-old XP to focus on the newest operating system, Windows 8. But adoption is slow, since due to software compatibility issues, many are simply moving to Windows 7, which is currently in use by more than half of U.S. computer users, based on data from NetMarketShare.com.
Windows 8 stands at about 13-percent usage, with XP still running on about a quarter of machines. The end is already in sight for Windows 7, though, with mainstream support ending in January 2015 and extended support ending in 2020.
Rodriguez stresses that with phones and voicemail, call accounting and call center reporting software and even video surveillance systems commonly run on PCs, hackers have a variety of options and in-points to cause trouble, whether it’s siphoning cash through 900 number call-routing schemes, or gaining control of security cameras.
Jibey Asthappan, director of the National Security Program at the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven says he’s most worried about those who simply don’t know any better (including his own students, 25 percent of whom he says don’t know how to install programs or generally use a computer).
“The majority of those hanging onto XP machines are those who aren’t in the know and aren’t aware of the vulnerabilities they’re risking for themselves and others,” he says. “Target spends a lot of money on security; I’m more worried about the mom-and-pop gas station or small business that outsources its point-of-sale system.”
Debby Starkweather, controller of Westport’s Inn at Longshore (a client of Allied Communications), was running an XP computer that she promptly had upgraded (to Windows 7) after being told of the issue. She admits she has relatively limited knowledge on computer matters but didn’t want to take the risk.
“We’re a small operation, and I’m responsible for six or seven machines, so I have to keep everyone healthy,” she says. “We have a large database of clients and their information, and we have an obligation to keep it safe.”
Windows 8 is a major change, both functionally and aesthetically, from Windows XP and 7 (though it does have a feature to run Windows 7 programs), which may be a further deterrent for potential users, aside from the fact that an upgrade to Windows 8 may require buying newer computers as well, something that should at least make the dwindling PC sales market happy, at least: Technology research firm Gartner says we can expect 60 million in PC replacements this year.
“It’s a bit selfish on Microsoft’s part; they should continue pay support for XP. That means Microsoft benefits from revenue, and for businesses who are reticent to change because they rely on it, they’ll be willing to spend for it,” Asthappan says.
“An XP machine may be hard pressed to run Windows 8,” Rodriguez adds. “A business may have to get rid of every machine – in some cases it means upgrading their entire phone system – but whatever the cost of upgrading, they have to think of the cost a hacking will do to their reputation, productivity and revenue.
“Nothing will guarantee you won’t get hacked,” says Rodriguez. “But if there’s a business out there still running Windows XP today, they’re taking a massive risk that’s not worth it.”
Both Asthappan and Rodriguez agree that for those wishing to back away from Microsoft altogether, Unix-based operating systems like Linux or even Mac OS X are secure, and with less than five percent of users operating each, don’t fall victim to hacks or viruses as commonly as Windows users.
Whichever option one chooses, an up-to-date system is the best bet for a safe system.
“There is no such thing as 100-percent security, but having your OS secure is a big step,” Asthappan says. “Without having a front door on your home, you’re in trouble; that’s every XP user. The key is putting in that front door.”