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Windows XP end of life poses problems for government IT

March 28, 2014

Windows XP debuted in late 2001 and quickly became one of the most widely used operating systems in the world. Now, nearly 13 years later, many newer operating systems have succeeded Windows XP, and yet XP remains in use. For example, a significant percentage of U.S. government computers operate on Windows XP.

This is a major problem. Microsoft will soon end support for Windows XP, and when that happens, numerous government IT services will be vulnerable to performance issues and cyberattacks.

XP in the government
The official end-of-life for Windows XP is April 8. On that date, Microsoft will discontinue its free, ongoing support of the operating system. Users will no longer be able to download patches and updates for their computers. Such updates are essential for many reasons, among the most significant of which is IT security. Without regular support, an operating system will inevitably become vulnerable to hackers and other cybercriminals.

Yet despite the fact that the end of Windows XP support was announced long ago, millions of U.S. government computers run on this operating system, according to The Washington Post. With the end-of-life date fast approaching, government agencies are rushing to upgrade their computers to a more recent operating system. However, according to the news source, approximately 10 percent of government computers will still be reliant on XP on April 8. These computers include machines on classified diplomatic and military networks, according to to U.S. officials.

Security experts widely believe that hackers have long been preparing for Windows XP end-of-life, and will likely take advantage of any opportunities to exploit this vulnerability that they find, the news source noted.

"Once XP goes out of support and is no longer patched, you've just raised the vulnerability significantly on the whole Windows platform in your organization if you haven't moved off XP," said Richard Spires, a former Department of Homeland Security chief information officer, The Washington Post reported.

The federal government petitioned Microsoft to extend support of Windows XP in order to allow agencies to move more of their operations to newer operating systems. However, the computing giant denied the request, according to the news source.

The Washington Post pointed out that the federal government has faced numerous cyberattacks in recent history. Most recently, Iranian hackers gained access to U.S. Navy systems.

A wider problem
It is important to note that Windows XP vulnerability issues are not limited to the U.S. government. The operating system is still in relatively wide service, which will quite possibly create problems for many companies in the near future. USA Today recently reported that Windows XP is particularly popular in point-of-sale systems, medical equipment and, most significantly, ATMs. Speaking to the news source, Jeff Dudash of ATM manufacturer NCR estimated that as many as 95 percent of all ATMs rely on Windows XP.

However, Dudash noted that many banks and other organizations have developed plans to guarantee the security of machines running on Windows XP. Those that do not may soon be in jeopardy.

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