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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

How to keep your PC secure when Microsoft ends Windows XP support

The Windows XPocalypse is almost upon us. After a legendary dozen year run, Microsoft will stop providing security patches for Windows XP on April 8, 2014. Without Microsoft’s protection, all those WinXP PCs will have targets painted on their hard drives.
Nearly 30 percent of Internet-connected PCs still run Windows XP, and no, they won’t die that day. They’ll continue running like normal, but they’ll be rotting inside, becoming increasingly full of security holes. Microsoft itself has dubbed the condition “Zero day forever.”
Look, let’s be honest. You should upgrade from Windows XP right now if at all possible—but not everyone can cut the XP cord so completely. If you can’t upgrade, there are some things you can do to protect yourself. Make no mistake: These tricks are like sticking your finger in a leaking dam. They’ll help a bit, but the dam is crumbling and it’s time to get out of the way.

Understand the risks

When Microsoft says it’s ending support for Windows XP, that means it will no longer produce security patches for critical vulnerabilities in the operating system. As time goes on, more and more critical security holes will be found, and attackers will have free reign to exploit them. Large organizations can pay exorbitant fees for continued custom Windows XP support, but those updates will never trickle out to everyday users or small businesses.
Smart attackers are likely waiting to exploit holes they already know about. They’ll unleash their attacks when Microsoft has moved on. The problems will never be fixed, so they can continue to attack them until the last Windows XP system vanishes from the Internet.
Other software developers will eventually stop supporting Windows XP, just as they no longer support Windows 98, creating even more attack vectors. This won’t happen overnight, but Windows XP will gradually be abandoned by everyone.

Choose your software wisely

If you use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, it’s time to let go. Internet Explorer 8, the most recent version available for Windows XP, is already several generations old and will no longer receive security patches. Google Chrome will continue supporting Windows XPuntil at least April 2015, while Mozilla Firefox has no announced plans to stop supporting Windows XP. So switch to Chrome or Firefox and you’ll have a secure, modern browser.
Most antivirus solutions will still continue supporting Windows XP. Even Microsoft’s own Microsoft Security Essentials will support Windows XP until July 14, 2015. Antivirus-testing company AV-TEST asked 30 different antivirus companies about their plans for Windows XP support and all of them committed to support Windows XP until at least April 8, 2015. Most committed to supporting it for even longer, into at least 2016.
Be sure you’re using an antivirus program that’s actually receiving updates, though, because that expired copy of Norton isn’t going to help you. An antivirus app isn’t a foolproof solution, and Microsoft warns, “Our research shows that the effectiveness of anti-malware solutions on out-of-support operating systems is limited.” Still, having some type of third-party protection certainly won’t hurt.


If you’re still using the now-defunct Outlook Express, you should stop using it right now. If you really love the Outlook experience, switch to the full version of Outlook included in Microsoft Office. Mozilla is still supporting Mozilla Thunderbird with security patches, though it’s unclear how long they’ll support Thunderbird on older operating system. Of course, you can always just use a web-based email service in Chrome or Firefox.
Microsoft will also stop supporting Office 2003 on April 8, 2014. If you’re still using Office 2003—or, even worse, Office XP— you should update to a newer, supported version of Office for improved security. Yes, this means only ribbon-ified versions of Office will be supported. Sorry.

Remove insecure software

The Java browser plug-in is extremely exploit-prone on any operating system. Unless you really need Java for a specific purpose, you should uninstall it. If you do need it, be sure to disable the browser plug-in and keep it up-to-date.
Other browser plug-ins are also frequently targeted by attackers. Adobe Flash and Adobe Reader are particularly crucial, so keep them up-to-date. Modern versions update themselves automatically, but older versions didn’t even check for updates. If you don’t need these applications, you should probably uninstall them to lock down your XP system as much as possible.
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