Securing Windows XP after Microsoft ends support in April 2014 is not going to be an easy job. In fact its going to be nearly impossible! StatCounter says Windows XP market share is around 19% whereas NetApplication says it is around 29%. Both have their own methodology of calculating this. Given the ground realities where a bulk still use Windows XP, and considering the fact that there are many still many home users from various parts of the world, who just would not be able to afford to upgrade to a newer version of the Windows operating system, securing their computers is going to a big challenge!
Even today, Windows XP holds around 20% of the operating system market share. And this is the global figure. In Africa, Windows XP still commands a market share of around 33%. In Asia its 27%! In India it is around 30%, whereas in China it is 51%! That’s like literally hundreds of millions of computers still running Windows XP!
Microsoft wants this figure to come down to around 10% globally by the time it ends its support in April 2014. But, although the figure may (or may not) come down, the figures in developing countries will continue to be high. There will still be those users, in some countries, who will predominantly still be using this outdated operating system.
When Microsoft ends support for Windows XP, it will stop releasing security and other updates for it. It will even stop supporting Microsoft Security Essentials on Windows XP. And once Microsoft stops providing security patches and updates to Windows XP SP3 and Microsoft Security Essentials, it will become an open playground for hackers and malware pushers. It will effectively have a zero-day vulnerability in perpetuity! You can read more about the perils of staying with Windows XP after End Of Support.
Although Microsoft will stop supporting Windows XP, there will be many software companies who will continue to support it. Several security companies like have already announced their intentions to continue supporting their antivirus and security software for Windows XP. But it is indeed a question – how long would other software companies want to support a platform that is practically for all purposes, dead in the water. Of course one cannot discount the fact that in case of an outbreak, Microsoft might just be compelled to release some security updates under public pressure – but that’s another question.
This post is meant to try and help those from such countries, where the usage of Windows XP would still be high and for those users who would be constrained to use it simply because they may not be able to afford to upgrade, by suggesting some steps they can take! It will attempt to list some steps which a Windows XP home user could take to minimize risks and mitigate their potential security problems.
Take backups regularly religiously - Take back ups regularly religiously! You have no option! Should something go wrong, you will have the option of going back. Use any of these free Imaging, Backup and Recovery Software which will work on Windows XP. What would happen if you needed to reinstall Windows XP on your computer? Would you be able to activate it? Would Microsoft’s activation servers for Windows XP activation still work? There are several such questions, which cannot be answered at the moment. So create an image of your Windows XP and maybe even back up the Activation Token files.
Keep your installed software up-to-date - A Software Update Checker like Secunia Personal Inspector will scan your computer for installed software. You will thus be protected from vulnerabilities in these software. Run their scans regularly.
Use an alternative web browser - Since Internet Explorer too will not get updates, it might be time to drop IE and move to an alternative browser like Firefox, Chrome or Opera.
Use alternative software instead of built-in software - Like for browsers, start using alternative media players, compression tools, Windows explorer alternatives, email clients and such, since these components too will not be receiving updates. You can see a bunch of free Windows software here.
Never click on unknown links or download attachments from unknown sources - This is important! Email is a common vector used by malware to get on your computer. So never ever click on any link which you may think looks suspicious. Even if you have a 1% doubt – DON’T! The same holds true for attachments too. You can surely download attachments you are expecting from friends, relatives & associates, but be very careful of the mail forwards which you may receive even from your friends. A small rule to remember in such scenarios: If in doubt – DONT!
Make Windows XP show file-extension - When you do this, the file names will always appear with their extensions like .doc, .pdf, .txt, etc. This will help you in seeing the real extensions of the files and thus make it a bit more difficult for malware to disguise itself and get on your computer.
Clear you Internet Cache frequently - Temporary Internet Files folder in Windows XP is a sure-shot breeding ground for malware downloaded from the Internet. Set your browser to clear cache on every exit. Take Windows XP offline - This could probably the best thing to do, ie if you can do it. Use Windows XP for all your offline work and don’t connect to the Internet. But yes, you will still have to take care when you plug in a friends USB or external drive!