Windows XP: The undead OS

While agencies acknowledge the risks and expense of continuing to run Windows XP, killing off the entrenched operating system is taking longer than anticipated.

It’s been one of the longest retirement parties in the IT world, but finally we should be able to say that Windows XP is now gone. Except that it isn’t, and what that means for the security of a – still – large slab of government XP users is an open question.

Microsoft officially ended its support for XP in April 2014, meaning it would not provide any more versions of the venerable operating system, introduced way back in 2001. At that time it also stopped providing security patches for XP through its Microsoft Security Essentials, though it continued to deliver anti-malware signature updates for a time.

That very last grace period finally came to an end on July 14 when Microsoft finished with XP signature updates along with the use of its Malicious Software Removal Tool for XP. If your XP machine gets infected with malware from now on… tough.

OK, you say, why should that bother me since every agency must have figured this out a long time ago and ditched XP in favor of another operating system that is regularly updated?

If only that were so. There still seems to be plenty of these old systems around. Market analyst firm Net Applications earlier this year said XP makes up nearly 17 percent of the total worldwide desktop operating system market share. Other analysts come in lower, but they still suggest over 10 percent of desktop users work with XP.

There are no overall figures for government, but occasional revelations indicate it’s not insubstantial. The Labor Department’s CIO was quoted earlier this year as saying there were still some 10,000 XP users in her agency, while the Navy last month signed a two-year, $9.1 million contract with Microsoft for its direct support of 100,000 mission critical systems, including thousands of XP computers.

No one expects these systems to be used forever. Labor and the Navy are both trying to transition away from these kinds of legacy systems, and so must the other agencies still running the aged operating system. However, no one knows how vulnerable the machines are.

And given the example of the recently announced breaches at the Office of Personnel Management, where OPM executives admitted the attacks on their systems could have been going on for at least a year, there’s a good chance that at least some XP systems still in use have been successfully penetrated. Attackers need only one infected machine to access other systems in the enterprise, from which they can cause damage and grab valuable data.

So, you say, at the very least agencies must be targeting these old XP systems as a priority for replacement? Again, that’s hard to say. And some recent reports and surveys indicate that desire and reality is a hard union to consummate in government IT.

The Professional Services Council in its recent CIO survey, for example, reported that cybersecurity remains the top priority for government CIOs, but that modernizing the IT environment in a way that could aid their cybersecurity efforts remains a challenge for many, because the predominant portion of their IT budgets goes to maintaining legacy systems. The Defense Department, for one, said only 20 percent of its budget is available for investing in next-generation solutions.

The situation out in state and local government is no better. In a study of state IT investment management strategies, a National Association of State CIOs  report said nearly half of state CIOs spend 80 cents of every IT dollar on maintaining existing systems.

What all of this suggests is that old Windows XP systems, particularly if they get lost in the intense competition of IT priorities, could be a problem for cybersecurity for some years yet.

According to Microsoft, Windows XP is now dead, dead, dead. Except when it’s not.

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