Running Windows XP after April? A couple of suggestions for you

Yesterday on Twitter, I said the following:

Suggestion… If you have an XP system that you ABSOLUTELY must run after April, I’d remove all JREs, as well as Acrobat Reader and Flash.

This was inspired by an inquiry from a customer about Windows XP support that arrived earlier in the day.

As a result of that tweet, three things have happened.

  1. Many people replied “unplug it from the network!” 1
  2. Several people asked me why I suggested doing these steps.
  3. I’ve begun working on a more comprehensive set of recommendations, to be available shortly. 2

First off… Yes, it’d be ideal if we could just retire all of these XP systems on a dime. But that’s not going to happen. If it was easy (or free), businesses and consumers wouldn’t have waited until the last second to retire these systems. But there’s a reason why they haven’t. Medical/dental practices have practice management or other proprietary software that isn’t tested/supported on anything newer, custom point of sale software from vendors that disappeared, were acquired, or simply never brought that version of their software… There’s a multitude of reasons, and these systems aren’t all going to disappear or be shut off by April. It’s not going to happen. It’s unfortunate, but there are a lot of Windows XP systems that will be used for many years still in many places that we’d all rather not see happen. There’s no silver bullet for that. Hence, my off the cuff recommendations over Twitter.

Second, there’s a reason why I called out these three pieces of software. If you aren’t familiar with the history, I’d encourage you to go Bing (or Google, or…) the three following searches:

  1. zero day java vulnerability
  2. zero day Flash vulnerability
  3. zero day Acrobat vulnerability

Now if you looked carefully, each one of those, at least on Bing, returned well over 1M results, many (most?) of them from the last three years. In telling me that these XP systems should be disconnected from the Web, many people missed the point I was making.

PCs don’t get infected from the inside out. They get infected from the outside in. When Microsoft had the “Security Push” over ten years ago that forced us to reconsider how we designed, built and tested software, it involved stopping where we were, and completely thinking about how Windows was built. Threat models replaced ridiculous statements like, “We have the very best xx encryption, so we’re ‘secure'”. While Windows XP may be more porous than Vista and later are (because the company was able to implement foundational security even more deeply, and engineer protections deeply into IE, for example, as well as implement primordial UAC), Windows XPSP2 and later are far less of a threat vector than XPSP1 and earlier were. So if you’re a bad guy and you want to get bad things to happen on a PC today, who do you go after? It isn’t Windows binaries themselves, or even IE. You go next for the application runtimes that are nearly as pervasive. Java, Flash, and Acrobat. Arguably, Acrobat may or may not be a runtime, depending on your POV. But the threat is still there, especially if you haven’t been maintaining these as they’ve been updated over the last few years.

As hard as Adobe and Oracle may try to keep these three patched, these three codebases have significant vulnerabilities that are found far too often. Those vulnerabilities, if not patched by vendors and updated by system owners incredibly quickly, become the primary vector of infecting both Windows and OS X systems by executing shellcode.

After April, Windows XP is expected to get no updates. Got that? NO UPDATES. NONE. Nada. Zippo. Zilch. So while you may get antivirus updates from Microsoft and third parties, but at that point you honestly have a rotting wooden boat. I say this in the nicest way possible. I was on the team shipping Windows XP, and it saddens me to throw it under the bus, but I don’t think people get the threat here. Antivirus simply cannot protect you from every kind of attack. Windows XP and the versions of IE (6-8) have still regularly received patches almost every month for the past several years. So Windows XP isn’t “war hardened”, it is brittle. So after April, you won’t even get those patches trying to spackle over newly found vulnerabilities in the OS and IE. Instead, these will become exploit vectors ready to be hit by shellcode coming in off of the Internet (or even the local network) and turned into opportunistic infections.

Disclaimer: This is absolutely NOT a guarantee that systems won’t get infected, and you should NOT remove these or any piece of Microsoft or third-party software if a business-critical application actually depends on them or if you do not understand the dependencies of the applications in use on a particular PC or set of PCs! 

So what is a business or consumer to do? Jettison, baby. Jettison. If you can’t retire the entire Windows XP system, retire every single piece of software on that system that you can, beginning with the three I mentioned above. Those are key connection points of any system to the Web/Internet. Remove them and there is a good likelihood of lessening the infection vector.   But it is a recommendation to make jetsam of any software on those XP systems that you really don’t need. Think of this as not traveling to a country where a specific disease is breaking out until the threat has passed. In the same vein, I’d say blocking Web browsers and removing email clients coming in a close second, since they’re such a great vector for social engineering-based infections today.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I am working on an even more comprehensive set of recommendations to come in a more comprehensive report to be published for work, in our next issue, which should be live on the Web during the last week of January. My first recommendation would of course be to, if at all possible, retire your Windows XP systems as soon as possible. But I hope that this set of recommendations, while absolutely not a guarantee, can help some people as they move away, or finally consider how to move away, from Windows XP.

Footnotes

  1. Or unplug the power, or blow it up with explosives, or…
  2. These recommendations will be included in the next issue of Update.

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  2. […] “Antivirus simply cannot protect you from every kind of attack,” he said in a January blog post, comparing XP to a “rotting wooden […]