THE MAGAZINE

Windows XP Goes Dark

By Holly Gilbert Stowell

On April 8, 2014, Microsoft ended security support for its Windows XP operating system. The platform, highly popular among businesses and consumers alike, represented nearly 30 percent of the global market share for machines as of February, according to consulting firm Net Applications. Cybersecurity experts tell Security Management that the security implications for the Windows XP end-of-life are considerable.

End-of-life. Microsoft releases security updates for its supported operating systems on Tuesdays–a day which has become known as “patch Tuesday.” As of early April, the company stopped releasing those updates for Windows XP. Any newly discovered vulnerabilities in the XP operating system will leave hackers plenty of room to find their way in.

Cybersecurity experts explain that there is a precedent for operating systems being phased out, but never before on the scale that XP has reached. “When you look at Windows XP, it’s arguably one of the most successful operating systems of all time,” says Girish Bhat, director of product marketing for security firm Wave Systems. “The success itself is currently getting to be a potential problem for many industries that have not necessarily moved away from it.”

Vinny Sakore, cloud security program manager at ICSA Labs, notes that the operating system’s high adoption rate is partly due to its 2001 release date. “XP came out during a time when the Internet was really changing, where everything moved to be Internet-based,” he says. “The challenge is that [Windows XP] was designed a long time ago…Because of the technology at the time it was designed, it’s just not able to keep up.”

With the constant updates for Internet browsers and other applications, Windows made the strategic move to ultimately save all users time and resources. “Microsoft already packed on extra time knowing that it was such a beloved operating system by so many IT professionals and home computer users,” explains Chester Wisniewski, senior security advisor at Sophos. “They finally decided to draw the line in the sand.”

Business sectors. Healthcare is one sector disproportionately affected by the XP end-of-life. Bhat says that for proprietary diagnostic imaging applications run on XP, such as CAT scan technology, replacements and upgrades are costly. In addition, “It is possible for a breached diagnostic machine running Windows XP to be used to modify, delete, or replace patient diagnostic images, causing misdiagnosis that can lead to serious consequences—both medical and legal,” he notes. 

Compliance is also a major concern for healthcare organizations still running any equipment and desktops on XP. Security requirements in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) mandate that adequate safeguards be in place to protect electronic personal healthcare information. “If there’s any private information that’s generated from the machine that’s associated with a Windows XP endpoint, the healthcare provider is noncompliant on that, which means it would potentially face fines,” explains Bhat.

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