Diocesan tech staffs have concerns about end of Windows XP support

Allouez, Wis.

On Tuesday, Microsoft discontinued support and security updates on all computers using its popular Windows XP operating system. Support also ended for Office 2003.

Various media and tech sources report that 11 to 30 percent of computers currently use the Windows XP system. A recent Washington Post article, citing Microsoft, reported that an estimated 10 percent of government computers are still using Windows XP.

While unable to estimate the number of computers in parishes and schools around the Green Bay diocese using Windows XP, Nick Griffie, software systems administrator for the diocese, knows that there are many. He's concerned because these will be vulnerable to hackers, viruses and malware after Tuesday.

"Not everyone will get hacked, but I wouldn't trust it with anything you log on to," he told The Compass, Green Bay's diocesan newspaper.

With about one-third of all computers linking to the Internet today still running Windows XP, "that is a bit of a concern," Chuck Davis told Catholic News Service. A professor at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, Davis teaches classes in ethical hacking and computer forensics.

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One's vulnerability depends on how one of those computers is used, he said. If it sits in a back office, is mainly used to do accounting work, and "you don't connect to Internet (and) are kind of isolated from the Internet, you should be perfectly fine," he said.

But if the computer is used to email and surf the Web and you are opening links and attachments, you're at a higher risk of becoming a target of hackers, he said.

Griffie said he was concerned not only about the risk of viruses but the hacking of passwords used for things like online banking.

"I would not recommend online banking, or logging on to a website that has the same user name and password you have for any online account," he told The Compass.

Windows XP was introduced to the general public in 2001. It remained the most popular of the Windows operating systems until the introduction of Windows 7 in 2012. Windows XP was succeeded by Windows Vista in late 2006.

Before Tuesday, users of Windows XP probably already noticed changes in their computers, Griffie added, like being slow to start or problems with Internet browsers such as Chrome or Firefox.

Microsoft has said for customers who currently use its Microsoft Essentials security, it will continue to update the malicious software removal until July 14, 2015. However, this will not be automatic, and Griffie said the upgrades will be unlikely to prevent hackers.

While some computers may be upgradable to Windows Vista or Windows 7, Griffie said they will not operate optimally, and some programs may not work at all on them.

"This is a widespread issue that is affecting a large number of users," said Thomas Way, associate professor of computing science at Villanova University. "Microsoft is being a little cavalier, with their recommendations being that people should just upgrade to Windows 8 or buy a new computer."

"The upgrade to Windows 8 is an expense that small business(es), particularly not-for-profit ones, and individuals may not be able to pay," he added in an email to CNS. "And because Windows 8 requires more powerful hardware than XP, many users may not be able to upgrade because their computer is too old."

"It is frustrating for users because their current computer that is running XP is working just fine and does everything they need," Way said. "For Microsoft to essentially force people to have to spend money is very irresponsible."

Way also said it's not clear "how much 'danger' there is with just keeping XP, but the claims are that over time, hackers will find ways to break into computers that are still running XP and wreak all sorts of havoc. I think that is perhaps a fear tactic on the part of Microsoft, since XP is actually very stable and it is unlikely that major problems will occur in the future."

Davis said he feels media coverage about the end of Windows XP support ending and how that will affect consumers "has been a little bit confusing and maybe misrepresented by some of the press."

Some news outlets have reported that ATMs are now going to be vulnerable, but Davis said in a phone interview the "biggest problems with ATMs isn't an attack over the Internet, it is 'skimming,' " when someone places a fake keyboard over the real keyboard at an ATM to collect people's sign-in data.

Windows XP still has "a large footprint out there," he said, but terminating support for software is not uncommon, when a company has made "bigger, better products."

"Certainly, for everybody who is running Windows XP it would make sense to upgrade to Windows 7," he said, because Windows 8 has "kind of a steep learning curve. ... Windows 7 actually is a lot more efficient."

Griffie recommended getting a new PC to run the different software. If that is cost-prohibitive, there are refurbished computers. He would recommend using one with Windows 7 Professional. And it is important to remember that Windows Vista will no longer be supported by Microsoft after April 2017 and Windows 7 after January 2020.

For those who can do it now, Griffie advised getting a computer with Windows 8.1, not 8, because Windows 8.1 can be set to start as if it were the more familiar Windows 7 desktop.

However, the trend of the future is the touch screen.

"Start trying to understand the tablet devices; that's what operating systems are all going to," Griffie told The Compass. "All the iPads, Androids, and surface machines, they are tablets. Soon, that's how all machines will operate."

[Patricia Kasten is associate editor of The Compass, newspaper of the Green Bay diocese. Catholic News Service contributed to this story.]

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June 16-29, 2017