With one week left to go in the official life of Microsoft's Windows XP operating system, my company's IT department suddenly realized that it is way behind where it should be on its plan to meet the deadline.
As almost everyone knows by now, Microsoft will be ending support for Windows XP on April 8. The most important concern we security managers have about this apocalyptic event is that Microsoft will no longer issue security updates for vulnerabilities in XP. This will leave XP users without the ability to harden their PC operating system against the inevitable attacks that will exploit inherit vulnerabilities discovered from April 8 onward.
Some doomsayers have even gone so far as to paint the harrowing picture of an army of hackers waiting to push the Enter keys on their keyboards on April 8, taking over the world's XP systems at a stroke. While I personally doubt this particular scenario, I do think that the risk of attack against XP systems will increase every day from April 8 forward, and after 60 or 90 days, the risk will be so great that nobody should use the operating system any longer.
I've had my eyes on this risk for quite some time. My company's data center manager has been running a project to replace windows XP with Windows 7 across the company, and it's only now that he's realized he's way behind where he thought he should be by now. In fact only half of the company systems have been converted at this point, with only a week left. Now he has called all hands on deck to try to catch up the remaining systems over the next week. Good luck.
It seems we are not alone. News articles abound with stories about windows XP stragglers. Even ATMs are being called out as running the obsolete operating system. Who knows, maybe on the day after the deadline all the ATMs running Windows XP will spit out all the cash on the ground. Then again, maybe not. But one would think that ATMs should be some of the most secure devices on the planet. I have to wonder, who designed those things with XP in them in the first place? That doesn't seem like the best choice at all. I only hope our nuclear submarine fleet is running something better.
Of course, we have antivirus software to help compensate for the lack of security updates on our XP computers. But signature-based malware protection is just not enough. My sophisticated security monitoring systems routinely detect malware infections that were not stopped by the endpoint antivirus software. We have to go out and reimage infected systems with a fresh operating system installation on a frequent basis because of malware infections that slipped through the endpoint defenses and that I deem too dangerous to clean. So what else can we do to protect the stragglers?
I'm looking at other options, like segmenting Windows XP systems on their own isolated network. I'm even thinking of going as far as preventing them from reaching the Internet. Of course, that will render them essentially useless. But the Internet is where the threats are, and without adequate defenses, it's only a matter time before those systems get compromised.
Another option is application whitelisting. That's a really cool technology that I've been looking at for some time now. But it's just not realistic for me to roll that out before the deadline. There's simply not enough time. Application whitelisting software is a good way to prevent malicious code from running on an endpoint, but it could take weeks or months to set up on each system. We don't have weeks or months. In any case, we have dropped everything else and are running full speed ahead with upgrading my company's computers. How long will it be before we have to repeat the same drill for the next-generation Windows platform?
This week's journal is written by a real security manager, "J.F. Rice," whose name and employer have been disguised for obvious reasons. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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